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Dark Justice' (1991-1993)Remembering the Dark:  'Dark Justice' (1991-1993)

by Cary O'Dell

A fun and intriguing premise:  the early nineties, too-late-for-primetime crime series “Dark Justice” told the story of a respected judge who, fed up with seeing too many completely guilty crooks walk free from his courtroom due to legal loopholes and technicalities, decided to turn vigilante in his after-dark, off hours, dishing out a kind of justice that he couldn’t from the bench.  As the judge, the honorable Nicholas Marshall (and the series) often warned, “Justice may be blind, but it can see in the dark.”

(Of course, that these pesky “technicalities” were actually Constitutional amendments was an aspect of the series that the writers and producers wisely chose not to dwell on.)

The Judge’s thirst for retribution was further fueled by his own grief; he had lost his wife and daughter in a deadly car bombing originally meant for him.

Though such a pseudo-revenge set-up had been explored in Michael Douglas’s 1983 big screen thriller “The Star Chamber” and, in its original form at least,” in primetime’s “Hardcastle & McCormick” series, and there is also, of course, an element of “Batman” to “Justice’s” twist on the punishment angle of “crime and punishment,” “Dark Justice” was newfangled type of crime show genre and a complete upending of the legal drama as its hero practiced a type of judicial payback that “Perry Mason” never dreamed of.

During its three seasons on the air, Judge Marshall was played by two different actors.  The first season saw lantern-jawed Ramy Zada in the lead; seasons two and three, featured the equally chiseled Bruce Abbott as the not so forgiving judge.

In either incarnation, after presiding over his courtroom all day, Judge Marshall would undo his thick mane of black hair (both actors) from its back-of-the-head ponytail and jump onto his Harley and hit the streets to carry out the sentence he couldn’t during the day.  In his work, the judge was assisted by a motley crue of assistants known collectively as “The Night Watchmen.” 

In an “A-Team” sort of approach, all of the members of the Night Watchmen were former petty crooks themselves now working their scams and grifts for good.  Arnold “Moon” Willis (played by veteran actor Dick O’Neill; better known Chris Cagney’s dad on “Cagney & Lacey”) was a reformed conman; Jericho “Gibbs” Gibson was a special effect expert (he was played by Clayton Prince) and, in season one, there was former bad girl Cat Duran (played by Begonya Plaza).  When Plaza departed the series, she was replaced for a short time by actress Viviane Vives as former Interpol agent Maria Marti.  Later, Janet Gunn (later the lead in the final seasons of “Silk Stalkings”) joined the show as part of Nick’s night-time team.  Also featured in the show was up-and-coming actress Carrie-Anne Moss as Tara, Judge Marshall’s secretary.

When it debuted in April of 1991, “Dark Justice” was part of CBS’s late-night, action-oriented alternative to late night talk.  “Crimetime After Primetime,” as it was called, replaced the just-departed and unsuccessful “Pat Sajak Show” and went head to head with Johnny Carson’s still dominating “Tonight Show” on NBC and Arsenio Hall’s hip late-night hour then running in syndication. 

Originally, “Crimetime” consisted of a quintet of hour-long crime-focused series:  “Sweating Bullets” (airing on Mondays); “Forever Knight” (about a crime-fighting vampire; it aired on Tuesdays); the Stephen J. Cannell-produced mystery anthology “Scene of the Crime” (Wednesdays); Shannon Tweed as a pilot in “Fly By Night” (on Thursdays) and, finally, “Dark Justice” (on Fridays).  (Later, as some of these series ended, they got replaced in the line-up with other detective and intrigue series like “The Exile,” “Dangerous Curves” and “Silk Stalkings.”  “Stalkings” would later move, to great success, to the USA Network.)

Interestingly, most of these programs were imported from Canada and the majority, at least originally, were filmed outside of the US.  The first season of “Sweating Bullets” (a.k.a. “Tropical Heat”) was shot in Mexico, and then, in subsequent seasons, it moved to Israel and then to South Africa.  “Forever Knight” and “Fly” were done in Canada.  And “Dark Justice,” in its first year, was filmed, in Barcelona, Spain, somehow made to look like a typical American city!

That first season of the show was the Ramy Zada season.  Zada, who had previously had a reoccurring role on “Dallas,” would later gain wider fame for a stint on “Melrose Place.”  When the series moved out of Spain and to LA for season two, Bruce Abbott assumed the robes of Judge Marshall and he would remain for the rest of the series.  Abbott was mainly known at that time for his role in the cult film “Re-Animator” and its sequel, “Bride of Re-Animator.”

When the “Crimetime” line-up debuted, of the five series, “Dark Justice” got not only the pivotal Friday-night timeslot but also garnered the best reviews of the bunch.  It would also prove to be the most popular of the group.  (Though to be fair, “Sweating Bullets” did become a TOTAL PHENOMENON in Serbia.  No, for real.) 

And, by 1992, “Dark Justice’s” success was surprising almost everyone.  By that time, Johnny Carson had stepped aside from NBC and his replacement, Jay Leno, had yet to hit his stride.  Meanwhile, Arsenio was beginning to fade.  The dark matters of “Dark Justice” gained traction and its Friday night episodes were often matching Leno’s ratings and, in many markets, exceeding Hall’s.  The show was also a hit overseas—in Spain, Greece, Germany and China.

While many ascribed the show’s success to the fact that, because it aired after-hours, the program could be a little more “adult”--dialogue often got more suggestive and cameras lingered over bare flesh a little longer—than was the CBS norm, others pointed to the likable cast and escapist nature of the enterprise.  One newspaper article at the time noted that the show was inventive and economical in its storytelling approach:  the show’s distinctive “good cop/bad cop” premise had these two ying/yang personalities mixed up in the same leading character. 

The show also became a popular place to see many beloved character actors.  Appearing over the show’s three years:  William Katt, Kent McCord, Denise Crosby, John Beck, Richard Lynch, Priscilla Barnes, Judith Chapman, Erin Gray, Eva LaRue, Erik Estrada, Anne Francis, and, as the judge’s mom, Lee Meriwether. 

But, for as successful as “Dark Justice” was (aided in part by the very low per-episode budget for the series had), this “Justice” would not last.  When David Letterman was passed over for Johnny Carson’s old job, he departed NBC and signed with CBS in order to create his own late-show show to face off against old friend Jay Leno.  CBS’s crime time line-up could have continued but they would all have to be pushed back an hour and those inherently lower ratings would not keep these series financially buoyant.  So, “Crimetime” came to an end.  As mentioned, though, “Silk Stalkings” found success over on USA and “Forever Knight” went into syndication.  “Dark Justice,” meanwhile, got a shot at primetime when CBS aired a two-hour movie version in the summer of 1993.  But, after that airing, and a failed attempt to take the series to first-run syndication ala “Baywatch,” “Justice” went dark.

Later, the 66 episodes of the series were rebroadcast by the TNT network and a single VHS tape was put on the market, at least in Europe.  But, after that, the series seemly disappeared, as firmly encased in the shadows as Judge Marshall and his mystery team always were.


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