I was at Costco the other day, picking up a few items that, for our household, it always pays to buy in bulk — butter, beer and coffee. I couldn’t figure out why I kept saying “butter and beer” over and over in my head, and then I remembered:
For years, WBNS, the CBS station in Columbus, ran a public-affairs show in the after-dinner, before-prime time slot that existed before “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” This was back when the FCC required a certain amount of public-affairs programming, and WBNS filled its obligation in part with this show — “Juvenile Court,” later renamed “The Judge.” In a half hour, two juvie cases were dramatized, with actors from local community theaters. It was spectacularly minimalist staging, sort of a “Waiting for Godot” of justice. (I like to think they kept the scenery light to keep the actors from chewing it.) The scene was always the final disposition of a particular case, which meant the facts could be rattled off in a simple status report, and then the judge would speak to all the concerned parties before making a final ruling. Lessons would be learned about neglectful parents, straying children and the wages of divorce and other social problems.
Everybody watched it, and it taught me a lot. What “incorrigible” means. How an Appalachian accent is a predictor of bad behavior. How lower-class defendants address the court as “judge” while wealthier ones say, “your honor.” I still remember many of the cases, which became comedy material for my friends in our smartass teen years, in one smoky basement or another. One of its key phrases remained with us for years: “What’s the home investigation?”
This was the fulcrum on which the case turned, the signal that we had now reached the good part. I said before that all the parts were played by actors? All but one — the social workers, who always played themselves. I don’t know why: maybe it was a union thing. It gave the series some continuity, with the same half-dozen social workers appearing again and again. And they brought a certain verisimilitude to the proceedings. It would be hard for even Meryl Streep to duplicate that bureaucratic pinch-faced delivery, the monotonal reading of facts gathered in the home investigation, which apparently required all concerned to open their doors and let this dowdy woman with a clipboard come in and poke around.
There was one couple whose children were ruled incorrigible, and it came out in the hearing that they raised dogs, which they obviously preferred over their own offspring. We learned this because the home investigation showed that there was nothing in the refrigerator (they always looked in the refrigerator, always) but butter and beer, although there was plenty of dog food. The judge demanded an explanation. “Judge, them dawgs gotta eat,” the father said in his southern Ohio twang.
(Later in life I knew a woman raised in a home very much like this one, and I regretted all the jokes I’d had over that case. Evidently it’s no fun to watch the household budget go for puppy chow while you and your teenage brother split a single pork chop.)
Mostly the proceedings were amazingly true to life, i.e., pretty wooden and boring, although some directors tried to light things up a little. There was one case which required the teen girl at its center to break down halfway through and shriek, “I’m going to have a baby!” She got the line off at top volume, then bent over and buried her face in her knees. She had to do this because it was clear she was hysterical with laughter and couldn’t keep it together. She played the rest of the scene that way, clutching her knees, rocking back and forth, answering all further questions with nods or shakes of the head. No time to reshoot the scene, this was local TV.
Anyway, if any of this is starting to sound familiar, here’s why: Years after the series went off the air, it was revived to catch the wave of syndicated court shows. The single courtroom set was gone, and the show opened up to shoot scenes in the judge’s chambers and in various courthouse anterooms. The social workers were history, and while I’m sure the new actors were professionals, they didn’t do a much better job than the original amateurs. (Although, given the material? It’s a wash.) But “Judge Robert Franklin,” surely named for the county of his incarnation, was the same. I think he was on the take, because this humble public servant lived in a veritable plantation (note the uniformed servant in the doorway as he leaves for work):
Anyway. Aren’t you glad you followed this thread with me? Isn’t it just like being in a nursing home?
So, a little bloggage?
I suspect the home investigation in this case would turn up some real gems. How often do 6-year-olds miss the bus and decide to drive to school?
Off to work. A good day to all.