Saturday, September 26, 2015

On The Air: The People's Court (1981)

If you remember 1988's "Rain Man", you might recall that The People's Court was the favorite TV show of Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant. The series had been on the air for 7 years by the time Barry Levinson's film was released, and after a 4 year break in the mid-90's, continues today, although the show's format has been tweaked some.

The People's Court premiered in 1981, not long after I graduated from high school. Judge Joseph Wapner was even immortalized in the lyrics of Young MC's "Got More Rhymes" on the rapper's 1989 debut CD. That's how much of a pop culture icon the jurist had become by that point. Wapner presided over the Court for 12 seasons (1981-93), a record long since eclipsed by Judge Judy. Warner Bros., which acquired Lorimar-Telepictures well before Wapner's term ended, decided to convince producers Stu Billett and Ralph Edwards to revive the series in 1997 after a 4 year hiatus, but as the now hour-long People's Court begins its 19th season in its current incarnation, it is on its third judge.

Former New York City Mayor Edward Koch was tapped in 1997 to preside over the new Court, which was curious in that Koch wasn't a jurist, but was selected largely because of his own status as a pop culture icon, particularly in NYC. Koch lasted a couple of seasons before Billett, Edwards, and Harvey Levin decided to go after the then-upstart Judge Judy by hiring Judy Sheinlin's husband, Jerry, as the new judge. He lasted 1 1/2 seasons before being ousted in favor of current judge Marilyn Milian.

So, why a 1 hour show today, when it was just fine as a half-hour show originally? Times change. Half-hour shows are packaged in one hour blocks in syndication today for ratings purposes, with few exceptions. It's why the current incarnation of Family Feud, for example, has two episodes a day instead of one, and it's own iconic status helps immensely as that franchise approaches 40 years next year. The hour-long blocks are designed to counter-program the tabloid talk shows, such as Jerry Springer, or, in the case of Feud in the home district, late afternoon news blocks.

Digression over. I don't know of any cabler that is running classic repeats of the Wapner era, and that's a shame, because the fatherly Wapner probably would frown over the current state of courtroom shows.

Anyway, here's a classic from the Wapner era. Part of the open has been edited.

Rating: A.

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