The joke is in the title.
Judge Steve Harvey, the latest venture from America’s most employable host, is not a Kenan Thompson SNL sketch nor a diegetic television show on Atlanta, but, in fact, a real program premiering tonight on ABC that will leave viewers in a fit of laughter but mostly in awe of the former stand-up’s endless branding capabilities.
Despite the innate absurdity of the project—mainly in that Harvey is not a judge nor has any legal experience—his entry into the ecosystem of network court shows is an undeniably astute move. For one thing, the last five years has seen the arbitration-based genre become increasingly dramatized. These nationally syndicated programs are less concerned with appearing like legitimate forums with real cases and litigants, like the recently concluded Judge Judy and The People’s Court, and instead operate more like tabloid shows that happen to take place in a courtroom. (See Couples Court with The Cutlers, Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court, the current state of Divorce Court, and Entertainment Studios’ slate of staged court shows as prime examples.) Plus, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate venue than a televised courtroom for a man who considers himself wiser and more discerning than the average person.
The most accurate description of Judge Steve Harvey is that it’s a continuation of the self-help portions of his previous NBC talk shows Steve Harvey and Steve, with a dose of rowdy church service energy. The extremely self-aware, comedy-infused show opens with Harvey strutting down a sidewalk in a snazzy trench coat before he enters the courthouse, “where common sense presides” in lieu of any professional bona fides on his part. Accordingly, the show brazenly forgoes the formalities and procedures of a courtroom at every turn, from Harvey’s flashy entrance and exit through automatic sliding doors, his choice to don a black suit instead a judicial robe, the presence of an emcee, and an uproarious audience that looks like they’re watching a stand-up act. At one point in the first episode, Harvey even leaves the bench to give a motivational speech on the main floor.
In his career as an author, radio host, and his later television gigs, Harvey has assumed the role of the seasoned Black elder with an unsurpassed understanding of relationships and a strong business acumen, whether he’s instructing single women to think like men to sustain their marriages or telling his talk show audience that they can’t sleep more than eight hours a day if they want to be rich. Of course, like most self-help gurus, his counsel is loaded with basic truisms and implements a bootstrap ideology. And his romantic and family advice often veers into religious, patriarchal terrority. Nevertheless, both viewers who take his word as bond and those who enjoy poking fun at him on Twitter will get a kick out of watching Harvey offer the most simplistic life advice and arbitrarily award plaintiffs money with his signature self-anointed authority.
Watching competent and professionally experienced television judges like Judith Sheindlin, Marilyn Milian, and Greg Mathis work out genuinely complicated matters to surprising results makes for the best courtroom drama. But for Judge Steve Harvey’s premise to work, the participants have to be (or at least pretend to be) extremely slow-witted and present conflicts that are easily resolvable. For example, the premiere episode’s first case features two neighbors fighting over the damage one’s fallen tree caused to the other’s backyard fence, then abruptly transitions into a dispute over liquor for a party. In a more outrageous case, a woman is accused of using money allocated for her brother’s funeral arrangements on a Brazilian butt lift, which, as you can imagine, is comedy gold for Harvey. Because it's the host’s speciality, no case is really about whatever monetary claims are being tried, but rather the relationship that was fractured.
Not that the show ever makes a claim at realness, but Judge Steve Harvey lacks a naturalistic, reality-TV quality regarding its theatrical participants, who come equipped with zingers and move their cases along without Harvey’s prompting. Still, the stagedness isn’t nearly as obvious as newer shows like America’s Court or Justice For All. And despite the litigants having names that look like they were created by an online generator, the disclaimer in the end credits doesn’t refer to them as actors but people who agreed to let their disputes play out on the show (via an auditioning process, according to Google).
For the most part, aside from its host, the show sticks to a tried-and-true, reliably amusing formula, with court show staples like the plaintiff who talks too much and the overconfident defendant who accidentally admits fault. As much as this new gig invites mockery, Harvey is effortlessly entertaining without veering into complete obnoxiousness or, dare I say, unbearable mansplaining. He seems to be the most digestible when he’s relishing in the ridiculous, SNL-esque persona that has made him such a fascinating celebrity over the past decade.
Judge Steve Harvey feels like the entertainment mogul in his fully realized form, becoming what he wanted to be all along.