Part 1: David E. Kelley
For those who have watched TV in the past few years, it is easy to equate David E. Kelley as enjoying a major creative renewal with a group of exceptional well-done shows with Nicole Kidman at the center. Big Little Lies was one of the biggest critical and ratings successes for HBO (are we going to get a third season, David?) The Undoing was a major audience and critical success last fall with nominations for Hugh Grant and awards for Donald Sutherland, and Nine Perfect Strangers has already achieved great buzz for Hulu this past month. Throw in the critically acclaimed Goliath for Amazon (now in its fourth and final season) and the high praise for Big Sky (coming back for its second year this week) and its easy to understand why Kelley has been considered hot.
What few people remember these days is that the major reason for Kelley’s fall from grace during much of the Golden Age was due to his own brand, and that brand took a major hit immediately following 9–11. Like Dick Wolf, this hit was almost entirely self-inflicted.
In order to explain this, one must take a broader view as Kelley’s work as a whole. Kelley’s first major success was as one of the head writers for L.A. Law one of the most famous and greatest series of the 1980s and early 1990s. Few shows had ever done the legal drama the way that Kelley and showrunner extraordinaire Steven Bochco did. It is one of the only dramas in television history to win four Emmys for Best Drama Series and launched the careers of (among others) Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Corbin Bernsen, Blair Underwood and Larry Drake. The series was known for its multi-week storylines, almost unheard of in that era and quirky sense of humor.
Kelley left L.A. Law in 1992 to form his own production company. The first series he created was Picket Fences, a bizarre, often brilliant drama series centered on the Brock family, living in Rome, Wisconsin. I have a great fondness for this series because along with The X-Files, Picket Fences was the gateway drama that led me to realize just how brilliant network television could truly be. Was it believable? Not really. But when you saw Fyvush Finkel stride into court, saying: ‘Douglas Wambaugh for the defendant, your honor!” or heard Ray Walston chew out the defense and the jury as Judge Bone, you didn’t really care. (Both Finkel and Walston would deservedly earn Emmys for their work here.) The series lasted four seasons and won fifteen Emmys, including two for Best Drama and Emmys for both Tom Skerritt and Kathy Baker as Jimmy and Jill Brock, the heart of the series. Despite the series tendency to lean on elder statesman, Picket Fences also launched the careers of such formidable talents as Lauren Holly, Holly Marie Combs and Don Cheadle.
Halfway through Picket Fences run, Kelley launched a hospital based drama Chicago Hope. Basically known as a trivia question (the Chicago-based medical drama to air premiere against ER) it was nevertheless an extremely well acted and written series featuring a searing performance by Mandy Patinkin as Jeffrey Geiger and great supporting work by Adam Arkin and Hector Elizondo. It could be best described as Grey’s Anatomy if the doctors were only concerned with running a hospital.
Because of Kelley’s excessive work load (he has a tendency to write most of the episodes of every series he runs) he basically resigned from both series in the fall of 1995. Chicago Hope would undergo a series of major transitions, but continue to run for six seasons. Picket Fences would suffer much more and end up being cancelled by the end of the 1995–1996 seasons.
Kelley’s exhaustion didn’t last long, and by the fall of 1997 he was running two completely different Boston-set legal dramas. (Kelley is a native Bostonian.) That spring, The Practice premiered on ABC. Featuring the barely surviving firm run by Bobby Donnell (in my opinion Dylan McDermott’s greatest role) the series dealt with a firm to survive usually defended the guiltiest and scummiest of clients. It dealt very clearly with the ethical and emotional strain it took to this kind of work. Barely surviving its first season, word of mouth and a move to Monday nights would make it a critical darling and a smash hit. It would often have storylines that lasted for weeks, sometimes two at a time. The series would launch the careers of such talents as Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim and Kelli Williams. It would win Best Drama twice and dominate the Guest Actor and Actress awards at the Emmys for its eight year run.
Of course, everybody remembers the other Boston set legal series that debuted in 1997 — Ally McBeal. There’s very little left to be said about it now, so I’ll just say as a personal criticism that even at the time, I thought it was too bizarre to work. It was far too quirky for its own good and that was before the dancing baby showed up. But you can’t exactly deny this series proved once and for all, Kelley’s gift for writing for actresses. Calista Flockhart, Jane Krakowski, Portia Del Rossi and Lucy Liu would not be who they are today had they not crossed paths with Kelley.
Kelley was perhaps at his peak in 1999. He may be the only showrunner in history to win an Emmy for Best Drama and Best Comedy in the same year for these series. At that point, his reach starting to exceed his grasp — he returned to Chicago Hope for a final season, attempted to do a half-hour version of Ally McBeal and tried a detective based series called Snoops all while still working in on his two Emmy winning series. All three of these series were gone by the fall of 2000, but Kelley didn’t slow down — that fall, he premiered his high school drama Boston Public on Fox which became another hit. Kelley was on cruise control.
Then before the 2001–2002 season began, the attacks of September 11th happened. And none of Kelley’s series were ever as good again.
It’s important to understand that Kelley’s series, more than any other show runner’s at the time, were always filled with topical references. Usually they were subtle — he made more than his share of O.J. Simpson references in The Practice and sometimes they just referred to victories by the Patriots or the Red Sox. After the attacks on September 11th, they become more frequent and far too obvious.
He rarely referred to the attacks themselves — though he did a couple of times on Ally McBeal in a very heavy handed way in January of 2002. But the more politicized the world became, the more intense and frankly ludicrous they became. Never was this clearer than on Boston Public when a class did a Model UN — and all of the students began shouting at ‘America’ over the Iraq War.
Within two years, Ally McBeal was cancelled and Boston Legal was in a graveyard site. The Practice seemed just as doomed, when it saved by the arrival of James Spader as Alan Shore, an attorney so corrupt he actually bragged about. Alan Shore was one of Kelley’s most brilliant creations, and when The Practice ended up being cancelled, Kelley essentially started a new series focused on him: Boston Legal. And this is where he truly went off the rails.
In all of Kelley’s previous dramas, there would only occasionally be a storyline devoted to current events — every few weeks or so. On Boston Legal, the firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt was dealing with more ripped from the headlines stories than Law and Order was and a faster clip. It is a tribute to the cast that the series managed to work as well as did — in addition to James Spader, the series featured William Shatner in what I would argue was his greatest role as ultra-conservative Denny Crane. (Shatner had appeared in a storyline in the final season of The Practice and was so brilliant that Kelley formed Boston Legal with him at the center. Shatner deservedly won two Emmys for his work.) Candice Bergen appeared in the middle of Season 1 as Shirley Schmidt, and managed to bring a voice of relative calm. Similarly great acting came from John Laroquette and Christian Clemson (who also won an Emmy) But the show would often work despite Kelley’s writing than because of it. It wasn’t long before Spader’s closing arguments became more along the lines of diatribes against the Bush Administration, Conservatism and everything that was a hot button issue in America than actual law. (The series actually ended with Alan lecturing the Supreme Court on its legal and moral failures. You don’t want to know.) It didn’t help matters that in the second season, Kelley would regularly have Spader and Shatner first subtly and then without any pretense acknowledging that they were in a TV series as well as some of their past roles. I could never understand why this happened.
Now Boston Legal was a very popular and critical hit, winning several Emmys along its five year run. (I should, however, say that I consider many of them among the most questionable in the awards history. Spader himself seemed to think as much; when he was third beating, among others, James Gandolfini, he seemed truly bothered by it.) But unlike so many of the great dramas of the era, you were never transported like you were with 24 or Lost. You always knew you were watching a television series, as opposed to a work of art. And more often then not, you were getting a series of Kelley’s political lectures disguised (barely) as entertainment.
I’m also certain there must have been a lot of behind the scenes strife. All of Kelley’s dramas had a certain degree of flux with the cast throughout the series. But on Boston Legal, you often couldn’t go more than a few episodes without a group of departures, often with no explanation. Lake Bell left before the first season was over; Monica Potter and Rhona Mitra were gone by the end of Season 1. Replacements would fluctuate as well; among the many superb actors who didn’t last long were Julie Bowen, Constance Zimmer, Saffron Burrows and Taraj P. Henson. Lest you think he was having problems keeping actresses, he had the same trouble with actors; Craig Bierko didn’t even last half of Season 3. (Bierko and Zimmer would end up finding their greatest moments a decade later on Lifetime’s UnReal.)
When the series ended in the winter of 2008, it took a long time for Kelley to come up with another series. It came as small surprise that it was yet another legal drama, this one set in Chicago. Harry’s Law, with Kathy Bates in the title role, seemed to be a little closer to The Practice in spirit than anything else. Bates’ character and her firm operated out of a shoe store and spent most of their time, working with lower class clients, as well as with an egomaniacal lawyer named…Tommy Jefferson. (Like I said, not subtle.)
This series was a relatively big success for NBC at a time when the network desperately needed one. Bates earned a deserved Best Actress nomination. Then in Season 2, they ended up nearly rewriting everything that happened in Season 1, half the cast departed and the shoe store was gone. Despite that, it was one of the network few real successes, which I never understood why they cancelled in the spring of 2012. (Then again, not long after that, the network managed to slowly begin its climb out of the cellar, so what do I know?)
Kelley slowly managed to climb out of the niche he found himself in. He developed a fairly well done hospital drama for TNT Monday Mornings, which was purely about medicine and I’m actually still bitter was cancelled. Then came one of his few attempts at a pure comedy: The Crazy Ones, sadly now known as the last major project Robin Williams was associated with. He’s now back to being as productive as he was at his peak and I have to say, its help immensely that the lion’s share of his project are adaptations of popular novels. (In addition to the works listed, he also adapted a series of Stephen King novels for DIRECTV, Mr. Mercedes. It took him time but he finally realized that the best way to create anything is to make it entertaining first, and then, maybe topical.
Note: By the way, if you want to judge Kelley’s earlier work for yourself, good luck finding it. The lion’s share of his 1990s work is unavailable streaming or in syndication and almost none of it is available on DVD. Except for Boston Legal.