Between David E. Kelley and Dick Wolf, most TV fans have seen a lot of TV judges. They’re usually sage, occasionally sardonic, and if you’re lucky, played by a character actor who seems ripped from a Diane Arbus photo. But not every TV judge is funny or interesting. Many, many TV judges are profoundly irritating — and that crumminess is aggravated by shows’ tendencies to base important dramatic arcs on said judge’s idiosyncrasies. We pulled out some of the most glaring examples of these kinds of characters, but there are dozens more where these came from. (They came from Law and Order, mostly.)
The small-town judge
He’s gruff, he’s grumpy, he’s more powerful than you can imagine on account of how big a fish he is in the small, podunk pond of a town. He (or rarely she) is most often seen outside the lawyer-show genre, like on Leverage (“The Bank Shot Job”) or most egregiously on a two-part episode of Studio 60. John Goodman earned an Emmy for his performance as Judge Bebe, which just goes to show that even the most unoriginal, frustrating character can be made special by incredibly heavy breathing.
L&O judges can be unfair and biased, but they’re rarely straight. David E. Kelley never met a character he didn’t want to humiliate in a courtroom, which became a theme for Ally McBeal and Boston Legal. Ally McBeal featured a judge named Happy Boyle who was obsessed with dental hygiene and would routinely inspect lawyers’ and witnesses’ teeth, and Boston Legal included judges who made lawyers hop on one foot. But Kelley’s most sadistic creation is Judge Aldrich on Chicago Hope, who periodically forced lawyers to turn to the courtroom and say “I am a toad.”
The fashion police
Judge Quinn orders Alicia on The Good Wife to wear a skirt to court (rather than pants). Judge Taft orders Casey Novak on SVU to do the same thing. And Ally McBeal gets held in contempt of Judge Walsh’s court for wearing a skirt he deems too revealing. Boo.
Every judge on Bones
They are the worst. They preside over lawyering so atrocious that even the most casual of courtroom drama fans would find it incompetent. Mumbo jumbo lab jargon? Fine, fudge the details. But court proceedings that regular layfolk are familiar with? Let’s inch a little closer to legitimacy.
The judge who is extremely particular
Ana Gasteyer’s Judge Lessner on The Good Wife insists lawyers frame their thoughts with “In my opinion.” Of all the David E. Kelley hallmarks that have popped up on The Good Wife, this one seems to be the most potent (for the record, Good Wife is not a David E. Kelley show, though it sure feels like one sometimes).
The judge who overturns the jury’s verdict
Oh, snap! Jack McCoy never got it quite so good as when Judge William Wright vacated the jury’s ruling, right there in the courtroom, leaving Jack no other option but to stare, agape, and blink furiously.
The judge who allows it, but you’re on a short leash/it better be good/you’re on thin ice/tread lightly/watch yourself, counselor
Just kidding, this is the best kind of judge on TV.