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‘Hot Bench’ Is the KFC Double Down of Courtroom TV

Three not-so-hot judges, one hot bailiff, and countless hot judicial takes on a ridiculous syndicated show

(CBS Distribution)
(CBS Distribution)

Surely, you’ll agree with me that network TV suffers an unfortunate monotony in its midday programming about civil-court arbitration. There’s Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, The People’s Court, Divorce Court, Caso Cerrado, etc. — a glut of cheap civil-claims drama, but a real famine in the way of creative variety. These shows are a distinctively American tradition, one that hasn’t evolved very much since The People’s Court premiered in 1981. It’s a simple ritual: We love watching our fellow Americans naively take on the responsibility of representing themselves in “court” (arbitration) only to find themselves and/or their opposing party in a civil claim hilariously dismantled by a loud and captivating judge.

But what if, instead of building one of these shows around a titular judge and (in many instances) his/her intrepid bailiff, you cast three judges (plus a bailiff) as costars and instructed them to litigate cases together, vying for screen time and talking over one another, in the manner of a vaguely extrajudicial tribunal? What if Judge Judy herself produced a courtroom TV show based on her tourist impressions of the Irish judiciary?

Your Honor, I bring you Hot Bench — cohosted by Larry Bakman, Patricia DiMango, and Tanya Acker — the KFC Double Down of courtroom TV shows. Inasmuch as Hot Bench is a series of arguments and alienating exposition among people who are all weird and wrong, watching Hot Bench (including all relevant promotional materials and interviews, largely available on YouTube) is a bit like watching The Room.

Hot Bench has been in first-run syndication since the show launched in September 2014 (check your local listings), so perhaps you’ve seen it long before I discovered it this week. I, personally, prefer to watch Judge Judy whenever I find myself watching network TV at such an inauspicious hour of the work day, and I hadn’t even heard of Hot Bench until I saw the music journalist Al Shipley tweeting about it Wednesday, expressing his disbelief that there’s a judge show called Hot Bench in the first place. Now, apparently, “hot bench” is a credible term of the trade, meant to describe the moment when a judge peppers counsel with questions during a court proceeding. But I’m not a lawyer, and so that wasn’t my first thought; to me, “Hot Bench” sounded like a 30 Rock comedy sketch about hot judges. Unfortunately, I was wrong about the hot judges part, but otherwise correct to assess Hot Bench as high comedy.

Meet Judge Bakman, who is, essentially, Bob Loblaw (of Bob Loblaw Law Blog fame) from Arrested Development:

Here he’s interviewed by the ruby-cheeked Gary Rosen, Judge Judy’s longtime publicist, in Hot Bench’s mock chambers, where Bakman professes his love of motorcycles — Italian sport bikes, specifically. Bakman’s motorcycle hobby actually proves crucial to the course and outcome of one great Hot Bench case, in which a motorcycle owner seeks compensation for damages from a woman who rear-ended him with her car. Bakman, who opens the proceedings with lots of unprovoked yelling to telegraph his passion for this particular dispute, offers his own meticulous, forensic assessment of the damage patterns on the plaintiff’s bike, as seen in photographs provided by the defendant. “I don’t need to look at the police report!” Bakman tells the plaintiff. He’s got this.

Hot Bench judges Bakman, DiMango, and Acker all come from different white-collar backgrounds. The only one of these arbitrators who has clocked substantial experience as a judge is DiMango, a former NYC criminal court judge appointed by Mayor Giuliani in 1995. Don’t get it twisted, though: She is actually the least formal, most flagrantly inappropriate Hot Bench panelist. In one particularly sticky dispute over borrowed exercise equipment, DiMango repeatedly presses the plaintiff to elaborate on the nature and details of her sexual liaisons with the defendant. Bakman and Acker spend much of the case trying to get DiMango to focus on the legal matter at hand. In another case, she opens with a blistering line of questioning about why men cheat. (Conspicuously, Judge Bakman shuts her questioning down real quick. Hmm.)

And then there’s Acker, a former political analyst who made the rounds on CNN and MSNBC way back during the 2008 presidential election, in which she favored Senator Obama. In her cable-news hits during the campaign season, Acker was a fast and furious pundit, and so it comes as a surprise that she’s actually the most cool, competent, and collected panelist on Hot Bench. Acker keeps the questions on track, and justice in view, with the invaluable assistance of her right-hand court officer, Sonia Montejano. Montejano, who does not actually sit on the Hot Bench, is the hottest member of Hot Bench. I found a strange trove of music video collage tributes to Montejano (all hosted by user limex865) on YouTube, now a proven hotbed of Hot Bench content and fandom.

Unlike other popular TV depictions of civil court, generally starring a single judge, Hot Bench has its trio deliberate amongst themselves, rule based on a simple majority vote, and then award or deny damages accordingly. The show recently got renewed through 2017, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Donald Trump — our first reality TV president — quickly reinvents American jurisprudence to basically resemble the carnival justice of Bakman, DiMango, & Acker.