Monday, March 25, 2002

Field will keep you watching 'Court'




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        When Sally Field won the 1985 Oscar for Places in the Heart, she declared: “You like me! You really like me!” That's why we'll watch The Court (10 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 9, 2).

        As TV dramas go, her new Supreme Court series isn't on par with The West Wing. It's not The Practice. It's not even JAG.

        The Court is better than CBS' Supreme Court show, First Monday (9 p.m., Friday, Channels 12, 7), starring her pal James Garner. But that's not saying much.

        In the premiere, former Ohio Gov. Kate Nolan (Ms. Field) joins the Supremes in record speed. She's nominated by the president, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and sworn into office in 30 minutes. Justice never has moved so swiftly.

        Through Justice Nolan, viewers will be introduced to the court's inner workings.

        “My character is the one that helps the audience come into the court . . . because my character has never been in that chamber before, has never had to handle quite these kinds of duties,” says the actress, 55, who agreed to the series after a good experience guest-starring on ER last season.

        Unlike First Monday, which tackled the death penalty and abortion in the first two weeks, The Court will focus more on the behind-the-scenes process.

        “It's less about those issues as it is about the machinery,” she says. “It is a little bit like The West Wing, in that it's really not about the decisions necessarily that the president is making . . . It really is about the machinery — where he does his work, and how does that happens.”

        Yet the similarities between The Court and First Monday can't be avoided. Both focus on a newly appointed justice to a deadlocked (4-4) bench. Both new justices have three young clerks — a white female, a white male and a minority male. Both have a cable TV news show-within-a-show that discuss the ramifications of rulings.

        The parallels are surprising, given that ABC scrapped the original pilot last year. The network fired executive producer Rob Scheidlinger, who had been developing the concept for three years, and took it back from ABC's in-house Touchstone Television studio. ABC executives weren't happy about the emphasis on the young clerks, instead of the two-time Oscar-winner.

        So ABC handed the show to Carol Flint, a producer for John Wells Productions (ER, The West Wing, Third Watch) at Warner Bros. She fired the entire cast, except the star.

        Ms. Field credits Ms. Flint (ER, China Beach, L.A. Law) with making “very cerebral” high court discussions accessible to viewers through the aggressive TV reporter (Craig Bierko, Sex and the City) covering the court. And petitions for stays of execution will “roll into the court . . . like heart attacks in the ER,” adds Ms. Flint, who was born and raised in the Dayton suburb of West Carrollton.

        “Carol has really found a way to open that up in a legitimate way, without really faking it, or making up a way to get into The Court for entertainment purposes,” Ms. Field says.

        Ms. Field has a comfort level working at Warner Bros., where she won an Emmy last year for playing Maura Tierney's mentally ill mother on ER. She also liked working close to home and her son, 14.

        “It's great not to be torn to pieces when you have to go off on location (to make a movie)” says the actress, who started her career as TV's Gidget (1965-66) and The Flying Nun (1967-70).

        Developing a series around Ms. Field as a career woman starting over was “a no-brainer,” Ms. Flint says. “I felt like half my job was done.”

        Viewers who might otherwise be intimidated by complicated Supreme Court issues will tune in because “Oh, Sally Field's doing it,” she says.

        Seeing Kate Nolan introducing herself to senators, it occurs to me that Ms. Field may be better suited playing a popular politician, not a cloistered jurist. She's too savvy, and charming, for this show about a stodgy court system that moves like molasses.

        Her talents would be better served in a TV drama about the U.S. Senate, or House of Representatives, or even the FDA.

        But she's on The Court, and millions will watch despite the weak storytelling, because she's Sally Field.

        We like her. We really like her.

        E-mail jkiesewetter@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/kiese



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