Judge Rebecca Wright has sex with a lot of men. That’s the punchline to most of the jokes on Bad Judge. There really isn’t anything else to the show, a light and forgettable sitcom executive produced by the Anchorman duo of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. It’s not exactly bad (ha), but like so many NBC comedies of late, it’s bland—seemingly focus-grouped to death and devoid of anything unique. Indeed, the original pilot for Bad Judge is drastically different from this final cut—and the change seems to have been implemented to ensure that the show is as easy to swallow as possible, sex joke intended.
At the show’s center is the judge herself, played by Kate Walsh, who is, as the title informs us, “bad.” Perplexingly, though, Rebecca isn’t a bad judge. She’s sexually active and wears headphones, which makes her look a little like a teenager. She is likely not the best employee the state of California has ever seen, given her tendency to roll into work tardy and hungover. But the show goes well out of its way to depict her doing a lot of good work, whether that’s getting a kid she knows out of a group home or sentencing a bigamist to community-college classes in women’s studies. When her boss does get upset with her, it’s for showing up late to work, not for misinterpreting the rule of law.
In the original pilot, Rebecca takes on a little boy named Robby as a personal project of sorts—she ended up sentencing his parents to prison, so she keeps an eye on him through foster homes. By the end of the pilot, she’s elected to let him move in with her rather than go to the dreaded Edgewater group home. In the pilot’s broadcast version, Robby is downgraded from a series semi-regular to a one-episode guest-star. Robby shows up, asks Rebecca to intercede on his behalf with the principal, and then is sent on his way again, after the right honorable judge gets a guy she’s sleeping with to sign a note for Robby that gets him out of the group home.
It’s the result of a radical retooling of the show—and as a result, it’s even more boring than the Raising Helen-esque premise was in the first place. It’s not Walsh’s fault—she tries very hard to make it work, and stories that land do so because the actress is as funny and charming as she can be. But Bad Judge isn’t Kate Walsh’s show because Bad Judge isn’t anyone’s show. Despite a mix of charming actors and good jokes, it’s a show that has no idea why it exists—except to make good on the humorous potential of a sexy-trashy woman sitting on the bench and delivering verdicts.
Which is to say: The premise is disturbingly judgmental on paper. And though Walsh often works to interpret that lens to be more fun and empowering than patronizing and disapproving, a mere play on words is not enough for a whole show to live on. There’s some potential to Bad Judge, if it can continue to have fun—but given that the second episode shifts the focus of the show to Rebecca’s true desire for a relationship, it seems unlikely. And that’s despite a few legitimately laugh-out-loud funny moments: Walsh has a gift for physical comedy, which you might not expect following her many years playing a Shondaland doctor, but which makes sense if you’ve seen her smaller roles in Fargo or The Hotwives Of Orlando.
The problem is that Bad Judge’s originality, whatever or wherever it is, will likely be ironed out to be as inoffensive and widely appealing as possible. NBC has had a middling track record with new comedies over the last few television seasons, precisely for this reason. Bad Judge is fine, but it’s unlikely that it’ll get the chance to be something good.