BY: David Bauder
NEW YORK – The teenager furrowed her brow and fixed Nancy Grace with a glare from across the television studio. But the girl was messing with the wrong person.
“You’re trying to act like a bully right now,” Grace told her. “I’m not going to be bullied.”
Anyone who has seen the fierce former prosecutor clamp down on missing person cases on her prime-time HLN show knows who wins that test of wills.
Grace has brought her style of justice into daytime TV’s busy courtroom genre and hopes to stand out, in part, by not being in a courtroom. She referees disputes but stays out of judicial robes and off the bench in the daily, syndicated show ‘Swift Justice‘ that premiered last week. She uses polygraphs and interviews witnesses who appear through Skype-like technology on huge screens on her set.
And there will be no doubting her rulings. “Case closed,” she says, in what may quickly become her catch phrase.
In a genre where there’s ‘Judge Judy‘ and everybody else, Grace’s high profile and willingness to try new things give ‘Swift Justice’ the best chance at succeeding among the three new syndicated legal shows debut this fall, said Bill Carroll, a programming analyst for Katz Television, which represents local stations seeking ad time in the syndication market. Seven existing shows, including ‘People’s Court‘ and ‘Judge Joe Brown,’ also chase Judy in the ratings.
Grace recognizes the dominance of ‘Judge Judy.’ It’s one of the few shows that her father watches regularly back home in Georgia.
“Why even pretend to be her?” Grace said. “Why even try?”
Before getting into television, Grace spent a decade as a prosecutor of felony cases in the Atlanta area. The prosecutor mindset — getting in the trenches and asking questions — is what she’s most comfortable with and she builds her show around that experience.
She studies the facts of each case and even writes out an opinion before each taping (each show has two cases). Grace has been surprised during her first batch of shows at how often her opinion changes when she talks to some of the people involved.
One woman was clearly responsible for damaging a motorcycle her husband was storing for a friend in the family garage. When Grace found out the “friend” was another woman with whom the husband was spending far too much time, she essentially let the wife off with a wrist-slapping.
On paper, a 12-year-old girl who hurt a classmate by throwing a rock at her seemed simple — until Grace found out the girl had been acting out since her mother died a few months ago. Her grandmother couldn’t handle her and tried to tame her with spankings.
It reminded Grace of the incident that altered her life and career, when her fiance was murdered and she gave up studying teaching to go to law school. Even 30 years after that tragedy, a recollection dampens her eyes.
“Nobody was equipped for this whole situation,” she said. “Nobody. I knew because I was there and I was not equipped for what happened. I never sought counseling. I didn’t know to. … I just knew that the world had blown up. … And I felt so bad for that little girl.”
Unraveling stories behind the legal disputes, and providing help where needed, could be another way to distinguish ‘Swift Justice’ from rivals.
Grace said people sometimes write to ask why she never smiles on her HLN show. Her response is basically, “about what?” She’s usually talking about a missing person or a terrible crime, topics that don’t inspire warmth and humor.
‘Swift Justice’ producers hope its stories will give Grace the chance to show a more engaging side of herself. Initial results were oddly unpromising: Her first show, for example, seemed edited to show a gruff, tough Grace almost at the expense of clarity.
“Hopefully, that will shine through one of these days but it’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about these cases and these people, their stories and hopefully what people can take away from them.”
The initial portrayal makes sense to Carroll, particularly for people who may check out the show without knowing Grace. “She’s opinionated and not bashful about sharing her views,” he said. “These court shows are most successful when it’s pretty clear where the judge is coming from in a particular case. I don’t think there’s any doubt where she is coming from.”
Over time, the people who wear best on daytime television are true to themselves, since the public sees them every day, he said.
Two shows five days a week seems like a brutal schedule, particularly for the mother of toddler twins who just broke a leg from a fall while trying to keep up with them. Yet “Swift Justice” tapes in chunks, several shows during a day, and she’s able to stay home for much of the day before going in to do her HLN prime-time show.
Grace said it’s important that ‘Swift Justice’ not become formulaic.
“It’s not easy,” she said. “It’s just like everything that happens in real life — it’s funny, it can be sad, there are lessons. There has been a lot of laughter in these cases, a lot of tears.”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.