First the award-winning NBC show "West Wing" gradually awakened the country to the fact that the White House could provide gripping drama.
So maybe the other branches of government could likewise inspire good writing and fine acting? First Monday (CBS, premières Jan. 15, 9-10 p.m. and then moves to Fridays starting Jan. 18) is a welcome addition to intelligent TV drama. The series zeroes in on the Supreme Court and shows the justices as very ordinary human beings.
Also spotlighted are their young law clerks, all twentysomethings, only a year or two out of law school. These dashing young people keep the romance of the law alive, while the justices, led by James Garner as Chief Justice Thomas Brankin and Charles Durning as Justice Henry Hoskins, are all head and very little heart.
But the hero of the story is the independent-minded Justice Joseph Novelli, played with splendid verity by Joe Mantegna. He's the wild card - no one knows how he will vote on any issue - and the issues are all hot buttons. These issues are argued with passion and insight from both sides of the political spectrum. That's the point of the show.
"I'd always had a fascination with the Supreme Court," Mr. Mantegna says. "And, as I got into [the script], I also thought this could be a nice way to take a character and pattern it closer to who and what I am.
"What I was initially attracted to was his independence - he isn't conservative or liberal - he was trying to do the right thing. That intrigued me, and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if the world was like that, and the courts were like that, and the government worked more like that?' "
When Mantegna talked to executive producer Donald Bellisario and then CBS president Les Moonves, he discussed making the character an Italian-American with a background similar to his own.
"That's what's great about our country," Mantegna says. "Everyone has the potential to be a judge or a senator. I've played a variety of roles - including gangsters and different ethnic backgrounds and so on. And I thought, 'If I'm going to do a show week after week, it would be great if the character were someone like me. Then I could draw on my own experiences, my own family life, my own background."
The fact that the judge is Italian-American has already inspired one episode in which Justice Novelli must decide on a question involving abortion. His priest preaches to him on Sunday, and even his wife lobbies for one side. But Novelli must make his decision based on law, not religious sentiment. And he gets excellent legal arguments from his conservative and liberal assistants.
That's the fun of the show. Mr. Bellisario says the character is conservative about political issues and more liberal on social issues. But he doesn't want one view to prevail in the show.
"There's a scene in one episode," Mantegna says, "in which one of the clerks complains about a case he's working on not being very important. And Novelli says, 'Everything we do here is important.' Making decisions that affect everyone in every walk of life becomes the grand issue of the show."
The justices' humanity - their flaws and their strengths - feed into the process that makes decisions that deeply affect Americans. Moreover, the justices are appointed for life. Scary.
But also decidedly fascinating. Bellisario includes real political celebrities in his show (Jerry Falwell argues about abortion in one segment with lawyer Gloria Allred) to underscore the importance of the court's decisions. These judges are some of the most brilliant and well-educated men and women in the country.
"I wanted to pull back the curtain and show the nine wizards behind it," says Bellisario, referencing the scene in "The Wizard of Oz." "They are just human beings."
The producer says he takes creative license with the process. But by the time any case reaches the Supreme Court, it's always gray - difficult to reduce to black and white. "These are tough questions of law with powerful arguments on both sides," he says.
Only one profession refers to itself as "the job" - at least on TV. And ABC's positive, if caustic, satire The Job (Jan. 16, 9:30-10 p.m.) may be one of the toughest police series ever. Returning this season after only six episodes last season, the comedy is shockingly funny.
It strikes one as more outrageous than, say, "NYPD Blue" or even "CSI," despite those shows' gory details. On a normal cop drama, a heinous crime would be treated with disgust and horror by the cops - or professional distance and sardonic wit. But in "The Job," gallows humor makes us gasp at the absurdity of crime and criminal. These cops see through every "perp" who crosses their path, but they can't see themselves for beans. Not one of them has an ounce of self-knowledge - least of all the show's anti-hero, played in a permanent state of manic exasperation by Denis Leary.
Mr. Leary is a kind of genius provocateur - and satirizing the cop's inconsiderate, unconscious, and selfish behavior is a big part of his comedy. The story is based on a real New York policeman, a friend of Leary's, but the series is tailored to Leary's peculiar brand of irreverent satire. He and executive producer Peter Tolan write 95 percent of the show.
Leary's character tells lies, and his lies catch up with him. "We found a lot more situations this season where he's caught like an animal and tries to talk his way out of it. Some of my favorite characters in television - Archie Bunker, Ralph Kramden, and even George Costanza - their plans always blow up in their faces. Their evil plan seems to work for a while, and then they get cocky. And it's the thing about always trying to get rich or get something you're not supposed to have - there is always great humor in that."
Then there's the character's super male ego. "I can identify with that from a guy's point of view, because we all have it to some extent," Leary says. "But it's really fun to play that because at some level, he's always stumbling over his own swelled head.
"At work, we end up laughing a lot. The actors do a lot of improv, so they are always throwing stuff in."