vulture bets on berry

Let Matt Berry Be the Judge of That

Hello, dealer? Yes, please, put it all on Berry. Illustration: by Carolyn Figel

These are hard times, and when things get really dark, we at Vulture like to double down on the things that are still capable of bringing us happiness. That’s why we’re running this recurring column, which serves as half-celebration and half-brainstorm for someone we’re consistently delighted to see show up on our screens: beloved British performer of stage and screen, Matt Berry. He’s best known for shows like Toast of LondonThe IT Crowd, and What We Do in the Shadows, but we’re confident that a performance by Matt Berry would spruce up all sorts of film and TV stories, big and small. 

So a few times a month, we’ll be using this space to propose new, occasionally out-of-the-box opportunities or roles for Mr. Berry. We are confident that should he ever find this column, he will find it both confusing and mortifying.

For my money, the best guest spot gig in TV is as a judge. There are a few different flavors — the straight-up police procedural, the more cable-y court thriller, the legal drama. In each one, though, the judge holds a special and delightful place. They get to wear big, voluminous black robes, often with a jaunty collar situation. The judge gets to sit literally higher than everyone else, looking down on them from a position of power. Best of all, the judge character is always a glorious combination of extreme reserve and obvious quirkiness. They are figures who command respect and who are supposed to be these higher-order beings of impartial justice, but in practice, every line they say becomes a reflection of who this individual person is. Do they think that objection should be sustained? Are they going to allow these kinds of shenanigans to proceed?

The judge guest role, in other words, is the human personification of a wickedly raised eyebrow. There is no one better suited to that position than beloved British actor Matt Berry.

First, think about how great he’d look in the robe. He’d walk into the courtroom and nod officiously at the bailiff, and as he settled into the big leather judge’s seat, the robe would swish around him with an air of impressive spectacle. Think about the pleated shoulders. Imagine all the jaunty collar options. Consider, too, one of the most important choices for TV judge guest spot costuming: Will he be one of the judges whose robe is always impeccably fully zipped? Will he be the kind of guy who strolls into the courtroom while zipping the robe up, as though he’s just been forced to interrupt a casual lunch in his chambers? Will he fall into the most chaotic option, the judge who sits behind the bench with the robe still unzipped?

Berry could pull off every one of these iterations, and you can tell because he has a remarkably expressive face. Judge roles, after all, require an immense amount of energy and attention on the face muscles. It’s a role that’s often about good active listening, but the judge also needs to communicate a whole internal life with very few available tools. Outside of the few fairly proscribed lines a judge has available to them (“Sustained!”), most of the character is built with a face and hands. They have the eyebrow quirk, the furrowed forehead, the squinted eye of skepticism, the raised brow of surprise, and — in extreme moments — the rapid tapping of a gavel. Berry has a vital asset that makes him perfect for this kind of work: He has fantastic eyebrows. They are mobile, eloquent brows, and they could do such extraordinary work when framed by a jet-black judge’s robe and a gleaming wood-paneled background.

Although a judge’s hands should be a tool of last resort, reserved only for the biggest moments in a scene, Berry’s hands are ready for the task. He has a habit of wearing a number of rings in his public appearances; think of the dramatic character potential of a judge who reaches for the gavel and shows off some beautiful rings in the process.

Of course, you can’t forget the importance of voice in a situation like this, and here’s where Berry is really head and shoulders above the competition. He’s good at projecting; he’s a fantastic enunciator. And given the stringent limitations of a judge’s role, you need someone who can take a one-word line and really make the most of it. No one has more ability to take a single word and imbue it with untold layers of nuance and personality than Matt Berry.

This would not be Berry’s first time playing a judge, either. In a 2019 Guardian interview, Berry talked about playing a judge in one of his first jobs at the London Dungeon, a tourist attraction where actors perform notorious, scary roles from London’s history. “You’d be the judge in the morning and Jack the Ripper in the afternoon,” he said. “It wasn’t RADA, but you learned how to get the story right and not to fluff your lines.” Obviously Berry’s career has come a long way since then, but that makes it all the more appealing for him to return to such a meaningful early role. This time, we could all appreciate how special it would be. (Presumably at this more mature phase in his life, he would not use the judge’s bench … inappropriately.)

In a perfect world, Matt Berry would get cast in a very specific judge role: as one of the judges on the Robert and Michelle King show The Good Fight. It’s the best, most fun, most Berry-friendly take on what a judge should be in a legal drama, because judges on The Good Fight are mercurial, strange, often infuriating figures full of bizarre quirks. But Berry would also be a true delight in even the most straight-laced cop show, a beacon of magnetic individuality in an otherwise staid setting. The gold standard is a show like Law & Order: SVU, where the judge is often the personality of last resort, the final opportunity for someone to weigh in on a case before the last “DUN DUN” chimes.

TV has come to a crossroads where it needs to re-examine the role of police shows in our culture. There’s a lot of serious, important work to be done, and it is up to all of us to be thoughtful consumers of culture so that we don’t perpetuate systems of implicit bias for yet more generations of American life. While we are doing that vital work, though, it’s also a good opportunity to make some smaller but equally helpful changes to the genre. We need to cast Matt Berry as a judge.

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Let Matt Berry Be the Judge of That