Bad Judge took a step backward on the comedy front this week, particularly for the first ten minutes; for a show with Bad Judge's ratings- anemic, but possibly survivable- that's bad news, and it's got me bummed as Bad Judge feels with each episode more and more like a show that will eventually grow into something special given the time.
While the comedy this week was weaker (though there's at least one big-money laugh at about the fifteen minute mark), having Rebecca off in her own sub-plot gave most of the cast something new to play; in the main story, we have Rebecca dragged into jury duty, stuck with type A super-douche Chad (played by Rob Riggle, born for this kind of part) as her foreman while Tedward and Gary team up against Judy and Tom in a series of bar games ("The Serpico Games") that probably looked a lot funnier on paper, but at least lets us see what those characters think of each other and how they interact when the dishonorable judge isn't around. The first plot worked much better than the second, but there's stuff worth talking about in both.
Rebecca's A-Story started off pretty traditionally: sitcom character gets trapped outside of their comfort zone. Riggle's Chad was initially a pretty bland pest, and the early jokes built around his back-and-forth with Rebecca left a lot to be desired… but three quarters of the way through the episode, his provocation authored perhaps the show's best single moment yet, as Rebecca's chaotic good morality finally overwhelmed her hedonism (a note the show's played before, but never this well) and led her into challenging, as opposed to merely attempting to escape, the lawful neutral Chad and his self-high fives. I generally try to avoid spoilers of the good shows on this blog, but suffice it to say Rebecca gets a very strong character moment that's backed by the biggest laugh of the episode, and possibly the season- and I don't just mean for Bad Judge but for network sitcoms in general- as she turns Chad's words against him. This is a big moment for Rebecca's soul, and a few minutes later she gets a similarly strong one for her mind in the jury plot line's conclusion… though Chad looks like a mortal lock to return. This is a good thing; most sitcoms are at their best with an antagonistic force (Parks and Rec lives and dies by whether or not they have one in a given episode), and with Tom becoming more of a friendly rival and Judge Hernandez largely ineffectual, Rebecca needs somebody to loathe. Again, the jokes in this story weren't very good for most of it, but the big moments landed, and the show's better for having gone down this road, even if we never see Chad again.
Even if we don't, if the writing can deliver a Rebecca like this one week to week, seamlessly blending the all the seemingly mismashed elements of her character that doomed the pilot into someone funny, sympathetic, and compelling, then we've got something to look forward to. If it's able to somehow do than and elevate ratings to a point where the network has a reason to keep it around, then the excellent Kate Walsh might finally have a star-making vehicle.
Sadly for the show's renewal hopes, the B-Story about the bar games was even less funny than the main plot, and had the unfortunate bad luck to air only a week or two after a much funnier Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode with a nearly identical concept. That said, we got a much better idea of who Gary is, both as a person and in relation to Rebecca, and both Tedward and Tom got to grow a little as well. Judy seems to be falling into the old sitcom trap of the character who's weird for weirdness' sake (probably done best by Seinfeld's Kramer but generally turns out much more like New Girl's Winston; worst case scenario is probably on CBS somewhere), but so far she's mostly made that gimmick work. Time will tell if it wears thin. Strong character work saves the segment from being a total dog, but the Serpico Games storyline on the whole has to go down as a misfire.
All in all, Bad Judge wasn't as funny as it's capable of being (and will need to be, if it's going to survive) this week, but it did some important work with its cast and still managed a few solid laughs (Hernandez's lone scene is a strong one, and Riggle's antagonist goes from dull and cliche to nearly perfect as more and more of his bizarre psychology and personal history is revealed). With Manhattan Love Story already the first fallen soldier of the season, Bad Judge may not be long for this world, but I'd love to be wrong about that; this is a show that's figuring itself out, and moments like Rebecca's change of heart, or Gary's, suggest that Bad Judge is capable of being a legitimately great show; if it can ever consistently deliver big moment's like Rebecca's stand from this week without losing (and ideally improving) the comic chops it showed off last week, it will be easily the best new sitcom of the season, and one of the better ones on TV generally.
We've all seen those shows that take a season to find themselves before knocking our socks off in season two; Bad Judge seems like a lock for a monster second season if it gets one, but its terribad pilot and uneven comic chops in the early going will likely cost it the opportunity.
Forgive me the pun, but here's hoping for a stay of execution.