CBS’ “All Rise” is a courthouse drama that follows the chaotic lives of its judges, prosecutors, and public defenders as they work with bailiffs, clerks, and cops to get justice for the people of Los Angeles, against the backdrop of a flawed and not always fair legal system. Now in its just-started second season, at the series’ center is newly appointed Judge Lola Carmichael (played by Simone Missick), a highly regarded former deputy district attorney. As the lead and a Black woman, she challenges expectations of what a judge is expected to be, and for her performance Missick channels both her own real life experiences as well as what’s in each script.
“It’s definitely a combination,” she said, singling out the second episode of the current season, titled “Keep Ya Head Up,” in which Judge Carmichael reflects on the angry Black woman trope with a powerful monologue. “That script was written by Kimberly Harrison, a Black woman, and directed by a Black woman, Erica Watson, and they most certainly provided a lot of what I think a lot of Black women go through. But with that particular episode, there were certainly moments when I felt the need to fill it out just a little bit.”
In the same episode, the judge also gets speechy when she gives a verdict on a defendant who she describes as “a privileged young white man” accused of assault. “The reality is that if this were a young Black man who did not come from privilege or wealth, he likely would not be given the same kind of space to tell his story,” Missick said. “And all of those things are built into the script.”
She recalls watching the vice presidential debate in October between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence — specifically Harris doing what she referred to as “mental gymnastics” — a day before that second episode was filmed, and it influenced how she approached specific scenes.
“Watching Kamala having to appear pleasant so as not to appear angry, I think every woman that understood what that was like, especially Black women, were angry, and yet celebrated the way she handled it,” Missick said. “But I called Dee Harris Lawrence, our showrunner, and I said, ‘I can’t do these scenes the way that they are’, because I felt like there was an ambivalence within Lola. So, as much of it was on the page, the writers also really helped to flesh out some of the ideas and feelings I was having, because I really struggled with that episode, wanting to make sure that the perspective of Black people in America, and specifically Black women, were felt.”
“All Rise” was something rare for CBS when it made its debut in September 2019: a primetime drama with a non-stereotypical Black woman as its protagonist. Loosely based on a 2005 nonfiction book, “Courtroom 302,” about a white male judge in Cook County, Illinois, series creator and co-showrunner Greg Spottiswood changed the main character to a Black woman in an effort to make it more of the moment.
For CBS, a network that had been criticized for a primetime lineup that lacked diversity, “All Rise” was part of a new wave of programming (including “Bob Hearts Abishola,” “Magnum PI” and “The Neighborhood”) meant to better reflect what America looks like today.
“I look on social media and there are so many people, women and men who are grateful for the show, and they say, ‘thank you,'” Missick said. “And so I think it’s a testament to our writers, and their willingness to really kind of help me flesh out Lola, because we all know how important it is to get it right.”
In May, while most full-season shows cut production short due to stay-home orders, the legal drama became the first U.S. scripted television series to incorporate the COVID-19 pandemic into its narrative by producing an episode enlisting its stars to work from home, doing their own makeup, set design and lighting.
The season finale, entiled “Dancing at Los Angeles,” saw Missick’s Judge Carmichael presiding over a Los Angeles Superior Court bench trial via video conference. “We were so excited to be able to film a finale, and taking into consideration the pandemic was exciting,” she said. “It was something different and we felt we were going to possibly create a way forward for other scripted shows. We were at home, using our iPads, our laptops and cell phones, trying to create a story, doing it all by ourselves. It was exhausting, but the finished product was something that I was so proud of because our production team did such a phenomenal job of making it feel real.”
The second season, which premiered on November 16, unfolds almost in real-time, against the backdrop of the pandemic, as characters wear masks and face shields, as well as maintain social distancing guidelines; the crusade for justice doesn’t end even in the face of a deadly outbreak. “We have this amazing system our executive producer Michael Robin, came up with, and so at any given point, there could be 15 cameras going at one time for one scene, and everyone is on, because everyone is filming simultaneously, and it helps cut down on the length of time we’re on set,” Missick said. “You spend a lot less time talking to people because of COVID and social distancing.”
As the new season kicks off, audiences learn that Judge Carmichael is pregnant. It’s a physical and psychological period of transformation in her life. Viewers might expect that the series will tackle issues related specifically to pregnant women in the workplace, the discrimination they sometimes face, especially when it comes to any aspect of employment — but Missick isn’t entirely sure how the series’ writers will handle Judge Carmichael’s pregnancy.
“In the next few episodes, I know for certain people will begin questioning her ability to do her job,” she said. “But it would be very interesting for them to then, perhaps take a case that explores the issue of what professional pregnant women experience. But they haven’t told me exactly how they plan on tackling the rest of Lola’s pregnancy, and her career while being a full-time mother.”
As one of the most progressive scripted series on network television, featuring a cast of mostly, as Missick puts it, “strong women,” from varied backgrounds, including Marg Helgenberger, Jessica Camacho, Ruthie Ann Miles, and Lindsay Mendez, “All Rise” is, if anything, idealistic in its mission to shine a light on stories from diverse perspectives, while highlighting problems currently plaguing America’s judicial system and social climate.
And for Missick, whose breakout role was playing Misty Knight in the Marvel-Netflix series “Luke Cage,” and who characterizes her Hollywood journey as “a 10-year overnight success,” she’s almost exactly where she expected to be at this stage of her career.
“That is the general timeline when you hear about people for the first time,” she said. “I look at some of the amazing actors that we celebrate today, who are leading their own shows and movies and writing and directing their own projects, and producing their own projects. Many of them had full careers on the stage, and as day players or in one-liner roles. And then they got their break. So it definitely makes you feel thankful once you do get it, because you recognize that it took a long time to get there.”
“All Rise” airs on CBS on Monday nights at 9 p.m.