David E. Kelley
Kelley wrote every episode of the dramedy Ally McBeal in its first season. At the same time, Kelley also wrote almost every episode of the intense drama The Practice. The quality of Kelley's writing is unparalleled.
In the summer of 1998, I was privileged enough to watch every episode of Kelley's first show Picket Fences. The first three seasons of Picket Fences were written by Kelley. These episodes set the standards by which all of his work should be judge by. The most creative, interesting, and intelligent writing came from those classic episodes of Picket Fences. No show has ever affected me more.
The only negative thing I can say about Kelley is that once he leaves his shows, they all fall apart. Picket Fences' fourth season was a disaster and Chicago Hope lost the substance that made it different from all of those action shows. No other writer(s) can match the quality and meticulously of his work. David E. Kelley stands in a class of his own.
By ANITA GATES
December 20, 1998
Jerry Seinfeld put it as well as anybody. "I mean," he said of David E. Kelley, "this guy has done actual things."
Kelley may be this decade's dean of the quality series, but when the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles honored him and Seinfeld on the same night two months ago, the speakers seemed to have trouble describing the essence of the Kelley genius as writer and producer.
Dylan McDermott, of Kelley's ABC law series, "The Practice," used the words "quirky, idiosyncratic," because somebody had to. Calista Flockhart, of Kelley's Fox law series, "Ally McBeal," went for the sentimental, describing Kelley as one who "tells us what it's like to be people." Tom Skerritt, who starred in Kelley's CBS drama "Picket Fences," referred to "outrageous subplots."
Then a deluge of Kelley television clips began: Roxanne and Arnie, a bit underdressed, crashing through the ceiling in "L.A. Law." The hated Rosalind, on the same series, stepping blithely into an empty elevator shaft. Sheriff Jimmy Brock, on "Picket Fences," catching his teen-age daughter in bed with a boyfriend. Lawyers screaming like schoolgirls at the sight of a mouse on "The Practice."
Dignity is one of the first things to go when a character enters Kelley's fictional world, but his take on life is a little more complicated than that. A viewing of two dozen or so episodes of his shows establishes that the characters he creates deal with embarrassment, vulnerability, emotional neediness, public misbehavior, the ludicrous and sometimes the grotesque more often than the average American.
But they also struggle with painful ethical questions and loyalties and sometimes surprise themselves by doing the right thing. Kelley, 42, is known as the most prolific writer in television, but what his scripts convey to a nation of network viewers about the human condition is probably more important than the fact that he writes them in longhand on yellow legal pads in record time.
Kelley's words are intelligent, of course. He deals in real moral issues and the kinds of conflicting loyalties that are part of every adult's life. As one episode of "Picket Fences" (the first series Kelley created, as writer and producer, on his own) asked, is it wrong to do a fetal-tissue transplant, even though you don't approve of the practice, if it will save the life of a good friend with Parkinson's disease?
In the show a judge rules against the procedure and carries a warrant to the hospital when the doctors defy his orders, but he stops on his way out to tell the patient's wife that his prayers are with her.
Ultimately the grabber in Kelley's teleplays may be the extreme vulnerability of his characters -- and the fact that the wounds aren't theoretical. Viewers get to see them make fools of themselves. Bad things happen to beautiful people. If they make love in a not completely private place, they get caught.
If a speech or conversation is really important, they say exactly the wrong thing. When they make confessions, the last people in the world they'd want to overhear it do.
On "Ally McBeal," Kelley's highly publicized Fox series, the beautiful blond lawyer Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith) shyly admits to her husband, in the privacy of the show's infamous co-ed office bathroom, that she has always considered herself "the fairest one of them all." Then her colleague Ally emerges from one of the bathroom stalls, and everyone is horrified.
The universal human fear of looking foolish or different may also account for the appeal of Kelley's occasionally grotesque imagery: a waiting room full of victims of a serial mutilator who turn up at the sheriff's office and hold up identical hooks where their hands used to be, or an entire family known as the Flying Gianninis arriving at their lawyers' office in a convoy of wheelchairs.
You the viewer sometimes fear that people are staring at you? Not compared with this. Or, more accurately, the message may be that we're all fodder for others' derision, that it's part of the deal of being human.
The earliest example of Kelley's work in the library of the Museum of Television and Radio in New York is a 1986 episode of "L.A. Law" that he wrote with Jacob Epstein and Marshall Goldberg. The episode has its serious elements -- a capital punishment case, the trial of a man with AIDS who helped his lover die -- but it also includes a file-eating, unhousebroken dog in the office and the battle of Arnie Becker's parents over which of them he'll represent during the divorce.
It's Arnie (Corbin Bernsen), the scummy but confident bachelor lawyer, who gets a taste of real embarrassment. The day after a bout of impotence, which has him feeling depressed enough, his beautiful bed partner forgives him by saying, at Arnie's office, within earshot of co-workers, "I'm sure you're very adequate when you're not so distracted."
"Full Marital Jacket," a 1988 episode of "L.A. Law" written by Kelley and Terry Louise Fisher, contains both serious and silly embarrassments. Benny (Larry Drake), the mentally retarded office employee, has been wrongfully charged with sexual misconduct. Abby (Michele Greene) is being wooed by a human cannonball.
Stuart and Ann (Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry) are getting married, but Ann is standing around in her wedding gown with hot rollers in her hair, refusing to start the ceremony until she gets more height. The bride and groom are so annoyed with each other by the time they reach the altar that they both snap "Fine!" instead of "I do." But then Ann says: "I love you so much, Stuart. Let's not screw it up, O.K.?" "Deal," he answers. Viewers have heard worse updates of the marriage vows.
It's easy to forget that Kelley's next accomplishment was a sitcom, "Doogie Howser, M.D.," about a 16-year-old doctor who looked 12. Kelley and Steven Bochco, his "L.A. Law" mentor, created the series in 1989, and its title character got started on potentially humiliating misunderstandings right away.
In the premiere episode, an attractive fortyish woman asks Doogie (Neil Patrick Harris), a boy genius who graduated from Princeton at age 10, to father her child. Doogie, a virgin, can't believe his luck and talks to his best friend at length about the prospect of repeated lovemaking to achieve the goal. But, as it turns out, the woman has artificial insemination in mind. Viewers learn this, but Doogie never does.
(Maybe the writers didn't think a teen-ager could handle the kind of mortification that Kelley's adult characters regularly endure.) Instead Doogie ponders the matter and wisely declines the offer.
Preternaturally mature teen-agers are a Kelley phenomenon, all the better to make the grown-ups feel foolish. In "Picket Fences," a teen-ager questioned about her sexual experience, if any, tells her father: "I'm your daughter. I'm a product of your influence. Now whether that's a source of fear or comfort to you, you'll have to decide."
"Picket Fences," which had its premiere in 1992, revolved around a small-town husband and wife team -- a sheriff (Tom Skerritt) and a doctor (Kathy Baker) -- who had their share of embarrassing moments. They seemed basically sane but were surrounded by a certain amount of peculiarity: A little girl brings a severed human hand in a jar to show-and-tell.
A little boy goes to bed in his hockey mask and uniform with his parents' permission. A young man attempts an armed robbery, with an Uzi, in the confessional. A judge announces, "I hate the federal government" and nobody in the courtroom bats an eye.
The only Kelley series with a married couple as protagonists, "Picket Fences" also celebrated family and commitment. In the Parkinson's disease episode, Jimmy (Skerritt) catches Jill (Ms. Baker) kissing an old boyfriend (Jamey Sheridan). They work things out, but the incident scares them both. "No matter how strong we get, it stays fragile," says Jimmy. "It always stays so fragile."
In the final scene, Sheridan's character, alone and lonely, listens to the happy sounds of Jill, Jimmy and their children having a picnic. This was in 1993, the year Kelley married Michelle Pfeiffer.
The following year, Kelley created "Chicago Hope," complete with a singing surgeon (Mandy Patinkin) and a story about Siamese twins in the first episode. He cut back his work on the show after two seasons, but his influence seems to live on, at least in terms of overt quirkiness.
Consider Dr. Lisa Catera, a character named for a play on words in a Cadillac commercial, and episodes involving a little-boy lama, freeze-dried cats, a 52-year-old woman going into labor during a Mediterranean Thanksgiving and a live bird loose in the operating room. Oh, and Christine Lahti's character, Dr. Kate Austin, has decided to become an astronaut.
Kelley is still dealing in questions of insecurity, failure and embarrassment in his two current series, both set in Boston law firms. On "The Practice," which won the Emmy Award for best drama series this year, Ellenor (Camryn Manheim) questions Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a district attorney, on the stand about a private conversation. Ellenor's boss, Bobby (Dylan McDermott), is furious -- because the firm's relationship with the D.A.'s office is more important than any one case. The testimony wins the case for Ellenor, but it leads to a lawsuit against the firm.
Meanwhile, Jimmy (Michael Badalucco) is worried that Bobby really wants Lindsay (Kelli Williams) to do the closing argument, because he likes her better. But Lindsay is devastated and guilty because she defended a beloved former law professor on trial for murder and lost. Even though she let the professor's wife lie on the witness stand.
"Ally McBeal" may continue to garner more attention for the title character's short skirts and the actress's eating habits than for its subject matter or messages, but at heart, "Ally" is the quintessential Kelley hero.
She is the most vulnerable, insecure lawyer in the world. She's clumsy (last Christmas she knocked over the tree while attached to it). She often says the wrong thing (speaking at a funeral: "The thing about funerals, the guest of honor is always dead").
She still isn't over a love affair that ended when she was in college, and everyone she works with (including the old boyfriend, now married) knows it. First, let's humiliate all the lawyers.
But Kelley hasn't lost his taste for the deliberately bizarre. Ally has dancing-baby hallucinations to remind her of her biological clock; she once did the makeup of a transvestite prostitute's corpse; she attended a funeral where Randy Newman's "Short People" was sung. And on "The Practice," one of Ellenor's recent clients was a mild-mannered guy who woke up one morning after a one-night stand at a motel to find his sex partner's head in his medical bag.
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
David E. Kelley's Shows
Boston Public - Monday on FOX at 8PM.
L.A. Law - Monday through Friday on A&E at 12pm EST / 9am PST and 6pm EST / 3pm PST.
All efforts have been made to confirm the accuracy of event listings. Listings are subject to change without notice. Please check your local listings for dates, times, and channels. All times listed are for the Pacific Standard/Daylight Time zone unless otherwise noted.