Judge Mathis began its eighth season in syndication this week, and before you read what I'm about to suggest and pound out your response on your computer keyboard with homocidal wrath, let me get all my legal disclaimers out of the way:
I know Greg Mathis. I like Greg Mathis. Before he hit the daytime jackpot on the TV-judge-show racket, our homeboy-made-good and I were stablemates on a Detroit radio station. A few of his relatives here are good friends of mine, and I'll never forget the night he literally dragged himself off a sickbed to honor his commitment to appear on one of my local TV shows. Yes, I admire his now-timeworn, hood-to-hero life story and the good works he performs in our community. And no, I am not the teeniest bit jealous over his remarkable run of success. (Hey, I make a living.)
All that said, it's abundantly clear to me that the time has come for the Once-Honorable Judge Mathis to put down his gavel. Hang up his robe. Write his career-ending, tell-all biography and retire blissfully to the rubber-chicken circuit. For there are waves of contempt in this video courtroom, and regrettably, they're flowing from the bench of Judge Mathis.
Just because a show is successful doesn't mean it's good. (Anybody remember the last season of Friends?) And few can deny that Judge Mathis is successful. In many markets including ours, of course the hour-long small-claims circus court still airs twice each weekday, at 9 a.m. on Channel 50 (WKBD), and a different episode at 4 p.m. on Channel 62 (WWJ). According to the show's Web site (judgemathistv.warnerbros.com), Mathis logged its 1,000th episode last season and "displayed greater lead-in growth than any other court show on television," celebrating its ability to bring eyeballs and ratings to the programs that follow it.
The show won an NAACP Image Award in 2004, and was nominated last year but didn't win suggesting that the honor, like so many others on the national scale, is mostly a function of custom and stature. Surely there was very little in last season's batch of Mathis that celebrated the highest qualities of African-Americans or Caucasians and Hispanics, for that matter.
I grant you, this task cannot be easy, holding forth for long hours in an imaginary courtroom on a Chicago (not Detroit) soundstage and listening to the great unwashed whine about unpaid cell phone bills and landlord evictions. Hey, eight years and 1,000 shows, how many half-baked lawsuits can one man stand? Which is precisely the point. I noticed a subtle change take place over last season with Hizzoner Greg; he appeared to become dare I say it? jaded. His "time for hard decisions and tough love, " as he says every day, turned into something different and more disturbing, and it wasn't always pretty.
If there were such a thing as judicial misconduct on daytime TV, Mathis would be up before the Nielsen review board. He rushes to judgment. He brands his witnesses most of whom have never seen a TV camera before as liars after hearing mere snippets of testimony, dismisses their cases and sends them packing. He makes broad allegations of drug use. He challenges the sexual orientation of litigants or demeans their occupations, taking particular relish in exotic entertainers. "Why are you people always ashamed of what you do?" Mathis asked one day. "You're a stripper. You say, 'I'm a DAHN-cer, like you're doing ballet or something."
Now, all this can be extremely entertaining and keeps daytime viewers, particularly black women, coming back for more unless, of course, you're the one whose case is being tried and have just been declared a liar or druggie by the star authority figure in front of God and a national audience.
Like many of you, I can't figure out why people would expose themselves to the possibility of that kind of ridicule. But they do, and if "the cases are real" and Mathis is all about "justice that makes a difference," as stated in his preamble each day, then his plaintiffs and defendants deserve better than this. Most galling is his bailiff, Doyle, who goads him with whispered offhand straight lines then stands back and lets Mathis deliver the insult. While this may be the first instance in entertainment history of a white ventriloquist talking through a black man, it's hardly cause for celebration.
I admit it: I'm a TV-judge junkie. I'm interested to see this fall's new benchwarmers, Christina's Court, which takes a half-hour from Judge Hatchett at 1 p.m. on Channel 2, and Judge Maria Lopez, forming a new Hispanic justice block at 10 a.m. on Channel 50, leading into my favorite, Marilyn Milian on The People's Court. Some tele-judges are tough, some are compassionate, and Judge Judy is just a bitch. But only Mathis consistently goes for big laughs at the expense of his litigants.
Mathis may be afflicted by the Oprah Syndrome not really wanting to continue that daily TV grind but realizing it's the foundation of your empire but there are worse things in life than signing off before the cynicism turns vicious. Case closed.Jim McFarlin writes about the boob tube for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.