In 2021, Judge Judith Sheindlin, the razor-tongued court show star, decamped from the dying medium of daytime broadcast syndication and joined Amazon for a streaming-era experiment.
Fewer people were watching traditional daytime television, including programs like “Judge Judy.” Was it because they were tired of the content? Or was the decline — as Amazon suspected — more about convenience and the delivery route? To find out, the company hired Judge Sheindlin to produce and star in a new court show, “Judy Justice,” and made it available on Freevee, a little-known, free streaming service supported by advertising.
“It was a risk,” Judge Sheindlin recalled over lunch this month, “but one that intrigued me.”
“Judy Justice” quickly became Freevee’s No. 1 original show, racking up more than 150 million hours watched over two years, according to Amazon, and recently prompting the company to give Judge Sheindlin, 80, two spinoff shows and a fourth unscripted show that is still under wraps. Some people inside Amazon Studios, which is in Culver City, Calif., have been jokingly referring to Judge Sheindlin’s programming expansion as the Judy-Verse, a play on the interconnected stories of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As she builds a mini empire at Amazon, Judge Sheindlin is also adding to what has become known as the Nepo-Verse. (Insert an irritated roll of her eyes about that sentence.) Nepotism has always been prevalent in Hollywood, but lately the number of actors, directors, singers and reality stars who have benefited from family connections has become startlingly large. New York magazine deemed 2022 “the year of the nepo baby.”
Judge Sheindlin’s granddaughter Sarah Rose appears as a law clerk on “Judy Justice,” which Amazon recently renewed for two more seasons. (“I’ve gotten more comfortable in front of the camera and more comfortable interrupting — in a respectful way — to share my perspective,” Sarah Rose said.) A spinoff, “Tribunal Justice,” with cases adjudicated by three legal professionals, one of whom is Judge Sheindlin’s son Adam Levy, arrived on Freevee last Friday. New episodes will roll out each weekday through December.
The coming series “Justice on Trial” will examine landmark court cases, in part through re-enactment, and feature Daniel T. Mentzer, a criminal defense lawyer in New York City who happens to be married to one of Judge Sheindlin’s daughters. One hourlong episode will focus on the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a science teacher was prosecuted for informing students about Darwin’s theory of evolution. “More relevant today than ever,” Judge Sheindlin said of Scopes, pointing to Florida’s ban on classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Judge Sheindlin and Amazon declined to discuss the fourth show, which is in development for release on Freevee sometime next year.
“Judge Sheindlin is a brand,” said Lauren Anderson, the head of original programming for Amazon’s ad-supported streaming operation. “It’s not as if we are saying we want 20 other court shows. But we are always listening when she’s pitching something.”
Freevee is on a courtroom roll. The service, which used to be called IMDb TV, is also home to “Jury Duty,” a hit documentary-sitcom in which an unsuspecting man unwittingly participates in a staged trial among actors. Free, ad-supported streaming platforms — others include Pluto TV, Tubi and Roku Channel — have become one of the fastest-growing areas in media, in part because some subscription streaming services have been raising prices, prompting cost-conscious viewers to seek alternatives.
But Judge Sheindlin remains a main attraction. As for casting family members in her shows, she suggested that anyone who didn’t like it could pound sand. “I wouldn’t bring in someone, support someone, unless they were terrific,” she said. “End of story.”
Judge Sheindlin took a bite of rigatoni Bolognese, and this reporter tried again: Why was her son Adam the best possible option for the third “Tribunal Justice” adjudicator?
“Look, everybody wants to be in the entertainment business — it’s glamorous,” she said. “But not everybody has the ability to connect with an audience and have legal credibility. Adam is a meticulous lawyer with a personality.”
Perhaps a “Kardashians”-style reality show could be next, a reporter offered dryly. She batted that idea away, joking that it would consist of her and her husband, Jerry Sheindlin, 89, watching “Jeopardy!” He shouts out the answers, she added, with a hint of annoyance. (He apparently also enjoys scrolling Instagram. “Horses,” she said with a sigh. “Nothing but horses.”)
“Tribunal Justice” pairs Mr. Levy, a former district attorney for Putnam County in New York, with the monarchal Justice Patricia DiMango, who stepped down from the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn in 2014, and Tanya Acker, a Yale-educated civil litigator. Justice DiMango and Ms. Acker previously starred on “Hot Bench,” a show created by Judge Sheindlin that continues in syndication.
“The elephant in the room is nepotism,” Mr. Levy said pre-emptively at the start of an interview at his Beverly Hills hotel. “If Judy was not the creator and executive producer, I would not be here. I know that. But putting that aside for a minute, I know that I am good at what I do in a courtroom.”
He continued, “I worked too hard to develop my reputation as a lawyer, as someone of substance who really does respect the law and the judicial process, to be diminished that way.”
Mr. Levy, 54, started his career in the early 1990s as a Long Island prosecutor. A decade ago, while serving as the Putnam County district attorney, he became enmeshed in a nasty feud with a local sheriff who accused him of interfering in a rape investigation. Mr. Levy denied any wrongdoing and sued for defamation. He won, with the sheriff forced to apologize for lying and pay $150,000.
The judges on most court shows do not examine piles of evidence before hearing a case. (Once you’ve adjudicated one dog-grooming incident gone wrong, you’ve sort of adjudicated them all.) Mr. Levy, however, has refused to operate that way on “Tribunal Justice,” pressing producers for voluminous paperwork and forcing Justice DiMango and Ms. Acker to up their game, Judge Sheindlin said.
One early “Tribunal Justice” episode featured a sunburned defendant, Brenda Biever, who was accused of absconding with $760 worth of property. Mr. Levy started out with soft questions. But his demeanor turned on a dime when he seemed to catch the plaintiff in a lie.
“Stop!” he shouted. “You show me some evidence! Right now!”
As part of her recent deal-making with Amazon, Judge Sheindlin will continue to star on “Judy Justice” until at least 2025, when she will be 82. Has she started to think about passing the baton?
“The short answer is yes,” she said. “But it’s not just passing a baton.” She wants her worldview to continue to be reflected, she said. “Like me, Adam is a personal responsibility person,” she said.
In a separate interview, Mr. Levy spoke about his style.
“If someone comes into a courtroom and lies or exaggerates or does something they’re not supposed to, I want to make sure they leave there embarrassed and humiliated to make it less likely they will do that again,” he said.
Sound like anybody you know?