Director courts justice on TV

Director Sidney Lumet likes the law, an affection that dates back some 20 years to his 1981 feature film "Prince of the City."

Today, he's working on the small screen with his latest effort, "100 Centre Street," which prowls the halls of New York City's night court.

The new one-hour drama on A&E (Mondays, 9-11 p.m.) stars Alan Arkin as a judge and focuses on prosecutors, defense attorneys, and accused criminals. "It's extraordinary what goes on [in night court]," Mr. Lumet says. He first explored that environment in "Prince of the City," which opens with a night-court scene.

In some cases judges have 30 seconds to decide a case that will have a major impact on someone's life. "What I thought was so extraordinary was how casual it all was," he says. "There's no drama.… It's very calm and very routine, and everybody's almost bored. And [yet] here, lives are being decided against this kind of atmosphere."

This legal yet intensely human milieu is a perfect fit for the small screen, says the director of such films as "Fail Safe," "Serpico," "Network," "Running on Empty," "The Verdict," and "Q&A."

A courtroom is "the most natural thing for a television show," Lumet says. "It's got an automatic built-in sense of conflict because right away there's one person on this side and one person on that side. A decision has to be made. And it's a source of conflict without melodrama, without it being false to what's going on. The people are real, the situations are real."

Despite these very real stakes at play every evening, Lumet says one thing struck him from his study of the New York legal system.

"I'd refer you to a line that Alan [Arkin] has…. 'When I first began, it [the court] was a disaster; now I think it's a miracle the system works at all.'

"And that's the one big thing you carry away from night court. You're stunned that it works because nothing in night court, or our justice system, was ever created for 400 cases a night."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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