Kaczmarek is playing a judge on TNT’s new series Raising the Bar. She’s done voice work as Judge Constance Harm on several episodes of The Simpsons. So of course I asked her to compare Judge Harm with her new character, Judge Trudy Kessler.
Fortunately, she gave a good-natured laugh, and then actually answered me: "Well … Mark-Paul Gosselaar [her Raising the Bar co-star] is a lot cuter than Bart Simpson." She laughs again, then adds of the two judges, "They’re both pretty by-the-book, hard old bats in a way. I think Trudy Kessler has nicer clothes."
Trudy Kessler is indeed a hard case on Raising the Bar. She’s politically ambitious and meticulous, and she suffers no nonsense in her courtroom, which puts her frequently at odds with Gosselaar’s passionate public defender, Jerry Kessler. Kaczmarek, a seven-time Emmy nominee for Malcolm in the Middle, talked about that adversarial relationship, what drew her to the show and her new perspective on the legal system in a conference call with reporters in mid-August. Some highlights:
Why is Judge Kessler always so annoyed with Jerry? Is there a history there we don’t know about yet?
I don’t know. I always find that the people who annoy you the most, it’s often because you’re a lot like them. There’s something in them that you recognize in yourself and don’t want to recognize. … My guess is that at one time she was an idealistic at Mark-Paul’s character is, and something happened to her that makes her just shut down in a way — she doesn’t let that kind of vulnerability enter into her decision-making any longer. …
But there isn’t anything she’s really doing that’s that out of the ordinary, I’m led to believe, or that horrible. Judges — what I was told is that this is their kingdom, their fiefdom [in] that courtroom, and they have complete control over the behavior of the people in it. So I think she feels it’s probably her responsibility to teach him a lesson and get him to heel, and he just refuses to be afraid of me.
What drew you to the show?
After Malcolm I was so exhausted. We had done that show for seven seasons, I had two babies during filming, and I was tired. I just didn’t want to work that kind of schedule anymore. So when offers came to me … I tended to pass. I didn’t want to play a lead in anything; I just wanted a character that wasn’t going to be carrying a show. I was very grateful when this show came along. I thought it was very interesting. I had worked with [executive producer] Steven Bochco 25 years ago on Hill Street Blues, and he was very creative in helping to develop a schedule for me that would help me be with my kids and in my life as much as I could, and in a very concentrated way allow me to get the work done that the character needed to do.
How will your character evolve over the season?
A lot of things are still up in the air. We do see her relationship with Charlie [Jonathan Scarfe], her law clerk, become a little more intense and finally some resolution to that. Which I really enjoyed doing. The courtroom scenes are one thing, but what happens back in chambers with this actor, Jonathan Scarfe, has really been the most interesting and satisfying for me.
He’s 20 years younger than me, and there’s a real power difference between me being a judge and him being my clerk. Being sexually involved with someone like that is wrought with all sorts of complications. You’re going to see that trajectory revealed some more.
Has working on Raising the Bar made you any more cynical about the justice system?
Oh man. I tell ya — it makes me drive the speed limit. It’s terrifying, and yet — what do they always say about democracy? "It’s the worst system out there, except all the others," or something like that. I don’t know how they get all this done except the way they do it. I mean, I have certain political ideas and things, but it’s a marvel that they accomplish anything with the amount of people they have to process and the amount of hearings that need to be held. … It’s a huuuge machine that’s really awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time. I’m just grateful that so far in my life I haven’t been involved in it.