In "Bad Judge," a new sitcom premiering Thursday on NBC, Kate Walsh plays Rebecca Wright, whom we meet as a lump on a bed, hung over in sparkly unmentionables, like something washed up from a past era of the Sunset Strip.
Pulling herself from bed, pulling on some outerwear barely less revealing than her underwear, she hops into a van of the old-school, don't come knockin' if it's a-rockin' variety; drives to a drug store, swilling aspirin, to pick up a pregnancy test; gets to work, takes the test. Pulling back her hair, throwing on a black robe, she is revealed to be a judge.
A judge! Well, you knew that, having read the title, crafted in the tradition of "Bad Teacher" and "Bad Santa."
She is not a bad judge, however — in fact, she is a good judge, of character and punishments that fit the crime. Nor is she, for that matter, a bad person, only one who does not, on her own time, act her age, as many people would reckon it. (She drinks, she sleeps around, she eats cake for breakfast.) Whether she could keep her job, saying the things she says and doing the things she does — the Ted Baxter Paradox — is not a question the series may care to ask.
Created by Chad Kultgen, a screenwriter better known for sexually explicit novels (the film adaptation of his "Men, Women, and Children" was just released), and with Anne Heche, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell attached as executive producers, the series has had a troubled gestation. Show runner Liz Brixius ("Nurse Jackie") departed in disagreements over the show's direction, to be replaced by Betsy Thomas ("Whitney"). The pilot that the network circulated back at the beginning of the summer has been substantially revised and fatally softened, even to the point of suggesting that what Rebecca really wants is the monogamous affection of the courtroom psychiatrist now played, after a casting change, by Ryan Hansen.
Before these changes, I was quite prepared to defend "Bad Judge" to the world, despite its difficult tone, unlikely details and probable short shelf life — which seems no less probable after the alterations. Walsh made a meal of the character, and one sensed the willingness to go down swinging.
Among other things, Rebecca has been robbed of the rock duo in which she drummed behind her best girlfriend. (Her bailiff, played by Tone Bell, now becomes her confidant; they do have the show's best chemistry.) She plays air drums at the end of the revised pilot, in a scene whose air of collegial bonhomie comes uncomfortably close to a 20th century beer commercial; and the van she drives has been contextualized as a nostalgic keepsake rather than an emblem of present desires. She's also been moved from the down-home digs that fit her character into a rich person's spotless modern pad, whose only sign of rockitude is a poster of Debbie Harry.
Still, Walsh, an actress who has only grown more interesting with time, is worth watching, even as the show grows slack beneath her. Check this out if only to remind yourself that she is made to last, whether "Bad Judge" does or not.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)