‘Couples’ Crosses Court With Talk for New Genre

Married Missouri lawyers Keith and Dana Cutler star

Why This Matters

As studios produce fewer shows for national syndication, every show counts when it comes to stations filling out daytime schedules.

Court is a genre that’s been common on daytime TV ever since The People’s Court starring Judge Joseph Wapner premiered in 1981. Relationships are also familiar territory, with everyone from Maury Povich to Jerry Springer to Dr. Phil McGraw regularly exploring them in daytime. But until now, no one has put the two together.

Enter Couples Court with the Cutlers, produced by David Armour’s 501 East Entertainment and distributed by MGM’s Orion TV Productions. The show splices the traditional court show — complete with black-robed judges sitting behind a bench — with conflict talk in which feuding couples come on television to air out their differences.

“It started with the success of Paternity Court,” David Armour, who executive produces both LaurenLake’s Paternity Court and now Couples Court with the Cutlers, said. “So many of the stories in Paternity Court start with infidelity. Whether it is actual cheating or accusations and allegations of cheating, we’ve seen how well those stories played. Paternity is a staple of daytime television that we flipped on its side to put in the courtroom.”

To do the show, though, Armour needed to find the right stars.

“We started searching for married lawyers and judges,” he said. “We wanted the perspective of a couple. We had an outside casting agency looking for anyone we could find who were married judges or lawyers.”

First Thing, Cast the Lawyers

That agency discovered a pair of lawyers in Kansas City, Mo. Keith and Dana Cutler met while they were attending Morehouse College and Spelman College in Atlanta, respectively, and then went on to study law together at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. They graduated in 1989, and were married the same year. Today, they have three adult sons and they practice law in an office they share with Dana’s father, James W. Tippin, who enjoys having court shows on while he goes about his work day.

“He is completely out of control,” Dana laughed. “For him, I am living the dream. He practices law and from 10 a.m. to lunch every day, he has the court shows on while he works. We have continuing legal education requirements so he says he’s studying.”

They are the rare people for whom television came calling, instead of vice versa.

“Of course, I did not believe that it was somebody actually calling us to consider being on the show,” she said. “I thought I was being punked, frankly. When I finally realized that this was for real, I said ‘I need to talk to my husband.’ He’s a pretty private person, I never thought he would do it. But when I mentioned it to him, he said ‘sure’ and I thought, ‘what have you done with my husband?’”

For Keith, the choice wasn’t difficult. “It was such a strange, unexpected opportunity. My attitude was OK, let’s just see how this goes. I didn’t want to be the guy who turned down the chance to have his own daytime television court show.”

The two were flown to Atlanta, where Couples Court and Paternity Court are taped, for on-screen tests.

“This is one of those weird meant-to-be things,” Armour said. “These weren’t people who were out looking for a TV show. They weren’t at WME or Endeavoror out with a tape. We found them and it was just who they are that fell right into what we were doing.”

“Each one of them has such different strengths,” Armour said. “Keith is a litigator. He’s so strong with the play-by-play. His natural personality is to drive from point A to point B to point C. When he sees a hole in a story, he’s on that.

“Dana’s natural inclination is color commentary. She brings the mom perspective, and she gets the details.”

Even though the Cutlers had never done anything close to television before, Armour knew he had found his stars.

“When we finally went to tell them that the show was greenlit, I flew to Missouri with the tape. The kids didn’t even know their parents had done a pilot. After we all watched it, the kids said, ‘Oh my god, they got you. You guys have been doing exactly this for 20 years.’ ”

Suspicious Minds Abound

When the show premieres, couples will bring cases to the Cutlers in which one partner believes the other is cheating. The show’s central premise will always be the same — infidelity — but the stories around that premise change constantly. So far, the Cutlers have shot 61 episodes but every one of them feels brand new, says Dana.

“I think the success of Paternity Court showed me that you can do a relationship court show,” Armour said. “I believe the secret sauce is that you can take a messy story but when you keep it confined to the court room, that keeps the decorum.

“I think there’s a comfort level for the daytime audience with this genre. What’s been nice is that we’ve been able to take the comfort level and turn it on its side and make it into relationship court. In this show, we’ve been able to combine life, love and the law with the sexiness and appeal of something that already works in daytime, which is infidelity.”

Couples Court with the Cutlers premieres in national syndication on Sept. 18 and is cleared in more than 90% of the United States and in the top 50 markets.