Tracking the long career of half-forgotten TV auteur David E. Kelley

Tracking the long career of half-forgotten TV auteur David E. Kelley

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

At one time, David E. Kelley was probably the best writer working in Hollywood.

For anyone who didn’t spend the mid-’90s watching Kelley expand the limits of serial-drama week after week, that may seem like a dubious assertion. But Kelley was a genuine television prodigy, a prolific writer who created at least three or four classic series, and wrote the lion’s share of their scripts by himself. The subject of a New York Times profile before he was 35, Kelley was one of the handful of behind-the-scenes talents whose name meant something to the average viewer prior to the HBO era. His timing was a perfect piece of luck: Steven Bochco, the man behind Hill Street Blues, was launching a legal drama and looking for writers who knew the law at just the moment when Kelley, a Boston-based attorney, saw his first spec screenplay (1987’s From The Hip) go into production.

Kelley joined Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher’s creation, L.A. Law, as a story editor; when the original showrunners left after three years, he was promoted to replace them. Kelley supervised L.A. Law for two seasons, which included the show’s most infamous storyline (corporate barracuda Rosalind Shays and her plunge down the elevator shaft). He left to create Picket Fences, which struggled in the ratings but won two Outstanding Drama Series Emmys. Though this small-town saga was compared to Northern Exposure, to which it bore a slight resemblance, and Twin Peaks, to which it bore none at all, its themes and tone were uniquely Kelley’s. The show’s offbeat, self-referential humor concealed Kelley’s interest in universality. He created Picket Fences so that he could cover every television genre in one series, and address almost any topical issue that caught his interest. 

The protagonists were Jimmy (Tom Skerritt) and Jill Brock (Kathy Baker), a married sheriff and doctor whose professions opened the door to crime and medical stories. Other characters took the series into the town hall, the school, the courtroom, and the private homes of Rome, Wisconsin. Many of the citizens of Kelley’s fictional town were weirdos and outcasts, but the town’s leading citizens shared had their own eccentricities and insecurities as well. Kelley’s M.O. was to introduce an extreme character—like the morbid coroner Carter Pike (Kelly Connell) or the crusty Judge Bone (Ray Walston) or the shamelessly sleazy lawyer Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvush Finkel)—and then gradually sketch in their hidden vulnerabilities and, always, their basic decency. Inclusiveness was Kelley’s major theme.

Much of Picket Fences concerned the burden of professional responsibility—the emotional toll of the hard decisions made by those who govern and serve. He followed that up with hospital show Chicago Hope, primarily notable for winning Mandy Patinkin an Emmy and for Kelley leaving in the middle of the second season. His next three series, all of which were also classics (or began that way, at least), narrowed in on different facets of that theme. The Practice was a down-market redo of L.A. Law, about a fledgling firm of young lawyers led by saturnine Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott). These attorneys were scrappers, known for their sleazy, win-at-all-costs tactics and disdained by their peers; Kelley took their nobility for granted. The Practice was a cerebral, serious-minded show that mined the life-or-death stakes of the law for heavy, forthright discussions of ethics and morality. Kelley was perfecting his “debate team captain as television producer” role, and his unadorned, precise dialogue—the opposite of the idiosyncratic, quasi-poetic rhythms that David Milch and Aaron Sorkin were developing at the same time—was the kind of subtext-as-text writing that The Sopranos creator David Chase, for instance, would come to deplore. But its remarkable lucidity could be stirring.

Ally McBeal, a second lawyer show that ran during the same period as The Practice, was a tonal inversion that caught critics by surprise and became an unlikely zeitgeist show. Its semi-comedic tone and magical-realist touches made Kelley’s name synonymous with quirk, and its at times befuddled depictions of young professional women tagged Kelley as either a feminist or a rank misogynist, depending on who was asked. Both of those talking points were red herrings that distracted from what Ally McBeal was really trying to do. Kelley’s biggest hit was his smallest-scaled endeavor, a soulful quasi-musical that courageously explored the touchy-feely aspects of adult life: the clash between professional and personal identities, the difficulty of connecting with other people, and, most crucially, the layer of ineffable, “Is this all there is?” melancholy that lurks within even the most successful people. Ally McBeal was Kelley’s mission statement. It was a work-in-progress blueprint for a life well lived, one built around music, holidays, and, most of all, families—not the ones people are born into, but those of our their choosing. 

Boston Public, Kelley’s most underrated creation, offered another corps of beleaguered, dedicated professionals, but in a new setting: a dilapidated high school in a dangerous neighborhood. At Boston Public’s center was an unlikely friendship between two administrators with clashing leadership styles: school principal Steven Harper (Chi McBride), an idealist whose compassion could lead to bad decisions, and vice principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald), a martinet whose hauteur hid an artistic soul. It was the last in a series of rich character pairings that seemed to arise out of fortuitous accidents of casting, like the arch bickering between Picket Fences seniors Wambaugh and Bone and the beautiful-dreamers bond between Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) and her boss John Cage (Peter MacNicol), both believers in things like unicorns and true love.

Kelley’s method was immediate enough to respond to the work of his actors (and he cultivated the best in the business). He wrote most of his drafts in four days, and felt that the magic got lost if he revised them too much. But speed meant that most of Kelley’s series lost focus after a few seasons. The epic cast changes in Ally McBeal and Boston Public showed Kelley getting bored with characters almost as soon as he concocted them and writing in replacements faster than the audience could follow along. Boston Legal, another lawyer ensemble spun out of the ashes of The Practice, won substantial Emmy recognition, but it was the first Kelley show that felt cobbled together with spare parts from his earlier work. Was Kelley finally all written out? His most recent creations, Harry’s Law (more lawyers) and Monday Mornings (more doctors), were intelligent and less obnoxious than Boston Legal, but covered familiar ground. And neither was a hit. (The verdict is still out on the Robin Williams comedy The Crazy Ones, for which Kelley is the executive producer, but not the primary writer.) 

Today, Kelley stands out as one of the more unfortunate casualties of the cable revolution, a top practitioner of a kind of talk-driven quality drama that no one makes any more. He is only 57, and seems capable of either sliding into irrelevance or having a major creative resurgence. For now, here are 10 episodes (in chronological order by airdate) to serve as a reminder of how good David E. Kelley used to be, and how good he could be again.

L.A. Law, “Beef Jerky” (season one, episode 16): Kelley was only one of a half-dozen staff writers on the committee-written L.A. Law, and TV historians will one day have the job of deciphering whether the show’s snarky tone came from Kelley or formed him. One thing is certain, though: Even the earliest episodes are rich in what became Kelley signatures. ”Beef Jerky,” co-written with Jacob Epstein, contains a defining Kelley scene: In a pun-rich case involving stolen bull semen, a stern judge orders opposing counsel into the hallway for a sidebar. The payoff? Not a lecture, but a private moment for all three to crack up before regaining their composure and returning to business. The A-story, which dramatizes the cruel irony that awards in injury lawsuits are much higher than those for wrongful deaths, also feels like a dry run for The Practice.

Picket Fences, “Buried Alive” (season two, episode 19): One of Kelley’s signature moves was the “dinner episode,” a bottle show that isolated core characters in a confined setting (often a holiday meal) for a kind of meta encounter session that brought simmering, long-term conflicts to the surface. “Buried Alive,” a sequel to the first season’s similar “Thanksgiving,” starts with a seemingly trivial clash between by-the-book deputy Maxine (Lauren Holly) and Jill’s rigid father (Richard Kiley). The conflict expands as Kelley pivots in unexpected directions, drawing in the other characters one by one, until Jimmy offers the touching climactic revelation: Even after many years of marriage, he still worries that he isn’t good enough for Jill, and that she will leave him someday.

Picket Fences, “My Left Shoe” (season two, episode 20): Long before writer Jerry Stahl turned CSI into a display case for kink, Kelley was quietly obsessed with the subject of sexual fetishism. Richard Fish’s erotic fixation on “wattle” (older women’s neck wrinkles) was one of Ally McBeal’s best running gags, but Kelley’s definitive script on the subject was this one, in which the town learns that Rome’s dignified and deeply humiliated priest (Roy Dotrice) regularly violates his vow of chastity with a vast collection of women’s footwear. As the scandal provokes many of the other characters to contemplate their own closeted fantasies (like Deputy Kenny’s thing for cheerleaders), Kelley offers a qualified plea for tolerance.

Chicago Hope, “Over The Rainbow” (season one, episode two): Kelley often explored the fine line between genius and mania, but never more fervidly than through the character of Jeffrey Geiger (Mandy Patinkin), a gifted heart surgeon who seemed hell-bent on self-immolation. This episode established the fevered pitch at which Geiger vibrated. He purloins the body of a recently deceased patient for experimentation, bites the finger of a condescending colleague, and deliberately antagonizes the hospital board. Underneath all of these antics, Kelley plants the unspoken question of “Why?” then answers it in the gut-wrenching final scene, which reveals that Geiger’s beloved wife (an amazing Kim Greist) has been institutionalized for killing their son. Patinkin’s halting rendition of her favorite song, Les Misérables’ “I Dreamed A Dream,” may be the high-water mark of Kelley’s unabashed emotionalism (which often yielded to irony in his later work).

The Practice, “Betrayal” (season two, episode two): Kelley executed the perfect crime in this dazzling episode, which showcases his skill for intricate, twisty plotting. In the prologue, Joey Heric—gay, Jewish, witty, and also a pure sociopath—calls Donnell And Associates in the middle of the night, points to the kitchen knife buried in his dead lover’s chest, and asks for some legal advice. Over the next hour, Kelley gradually reveals that Heric (John Larroquette, who won an Emmy for reprising the character the following year) is six steps ahead of the cops, the prosecutors, and his own lawyers in a plot to get away with murder. The irrepressible serial murderer was a well to which Kelley would return too often—even Betty White played one—but Joey Heric was the first and best of a Kelley archetype that presciently dared viewers to identify with the bad guy.

Ally McBeal, “Silver Bells” (season one, episode 11): Holidays were so useful to Kelley, as pointed reminders of the kind of pre-defined happiness that Ally McBeal and company never seemed to achieve, that he sometimes penned two or three Christmas episodes per season. This one, the first, pinpoints the money-and-sex-obsessed Richard Fish’s (Greg Germann) fear of commitment to his girlfriend, Judge “Whipper” Cone (Dyan Cannon), who is older than he is and all too aware that she has fewer options. Cannon’s inflections of pride and desperation are lovely, but it’s Germann’s fearless, tuneless karaoke version of “More Today Than Yesterday” that provides the resolution. “Silver Bells” warned viewers that this would be a series in which everyone sang their true feelings, for better or worse, and that scenes in the karaoke bar would always resonate more than those in the courtroom. 

The Practice, “Rhyme And Reason” (season two, episode 28): In the prologue, a 13-year-old impulsively shoots his own mother to death. What to do with the boy is a social problem that the legal system is not configured to deal with, but Bobby, the sympathetic prosecutor (Lara Flynn Boyle), and the judge (a magisterial Louise Fletcher), all add to their own personal misery by going through the motions. In a devastating subplot, hotshot lawyer Eugene Young (Steve Harris) realizes that the fine ethical distinctions he makes to justify his often-unsavory work are meaningless to his young son, who’s simply proud that his father can get murderers off. Instead of the expected heart-to-heart with his son, Eugene launches a self-destructive tirade against an appellate court panel, because he knows that, in ignoring the law to keep a killer behind bars, their moral correctness trumps his legal correctness. Particularly in the early seasons of The Practice, Kelley consistently sidestepped the worn-out clichés of the legal genre and used his inside knowledge to inform many fresh, authentic-seeming takes on the workings of the law and the inner lives of its practitioners.

Ally McBeal, “Happy Trails” (season two, episode seven): Kelley’s version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s “Chuckles the Clown,” this episode deals with the deaths of two minor characters: “Happy” Boyle, one of the wacky judges that was another Kelley signature, and Stefan, the pet frog of John Cage. Phil Leeds, the elderly actor who played Judge Boyle, had passed away in real life, but Kelley’s decision to give him a grand send-off was more about heart than narrative needs; grieving and funerals were another ritual of life that he loved to write. As for Stefan? Well, Ally McBeal was the most insular and self-referential of Kelley’s series, and it’s impossible to explain to the uninitiated how a tree frog became a surrogate for the delicate ego of Kelley’s most nuanced oddball. But the scene in which Stefan becomes frog legs is a reminder that Kelley could write straight comedy very well, and the byplay between the secondary characters—fussy Cage, selfish Fish, spoiled Ling, and ice-queen Nelle—is a first-rate example of the sharp insult humor that could result from Kelley’s fondness for creating characters with no filters.

Boston Public, “Chapter Twelve” (season one, episode 12): This harrowing exeunt for nebbishy teacher Milton Buttle (Joey Slotnick), who throws away his career for an illicit affair with a student, offers a rare glimpse of the dark underside of Kelley’s empathy for insecure nerds: Sincere in his attraction to the mature-for-her-age teen, Buttle is also pathetic and indefensible. The disgusted Harper’s firing of Buttle is inevitable, but what makes this classic Kelley is a later scene in which Guber learns that the likable gym coach (Thomas McCarthy) briefly concealed his friend’s indiscretion and fires him on the spot. Serial drama accustoms the viewer to expect a deus ex machina that will waive away the consequences of characters’ actions in order to bring everyone back next week, but Kelley had the balls to sacrifice series regulars for the sake of a good storyline.

Boston Legal, “Mad Cows” (season five, episode seven): For all its flaws, Boston Legal did two things well: One was the relaxed, philosophical banter that Kelley wrote for the leads, Alan Shore (James Spader) and Denny Crane (William Shatner)—narcissistic attorneys who bridged a mutual loneliness through an open, yet private friendship. The other was Kelley’s willingness to name and shame the Bush administration, offering passionate, detailed critiques of specific policies at a point when such dissent was often labeled as unpatriotic. Though Kelley expressed too much of his ire in long, dramatically inert speeches, his zeal at least made Boston Legal one of the few TV series of its time that mirrored the kind of conversations viewers were having in their homes and offices. “Mad Cows,” a typically cranky attack on pro-corporate USDA policies, combined the show’s two hallmarks in a series of articulate conversations in which Alan challenges Denny to justify his presumed vote for John McCain. Who but Kelley could get away with devoting so much primetime to something so banal?

And if you like those, here are 10 more: Chicago Hope, “Cutting Edges” (season one, episode 13); Picket Fences, “Changing Of The Guard” (season three, episode 17); Picket Fences, “The Song Of Rome” (season three, episode 22); The Practice, “Part V” (season one, episode five); The Practice, “Trench Work” (season three, episode seven); Ally McBeal, “Tis The Season” (season four, episode six); Boston Public, “Chapter Twenty-One” (season one, episode 21); Boston Public, “Chapter Forty-One” (season two, episode 19); Harry’s Law, “Innocent Man” (season one, episode three); Monday Mornings, “The Legend And The Fall” (season one, episode five). 

Availability: L.A. Law is presently unavailable on home video, although a DVD release is rumored for next year (and most episodes are on YouTube as of this writing). The first season of Picket Fences is on DVD, and the first two seasons (out of four) can be streamed on Hulu Plus, which also offers Chicago Hope’s first three seasons (out of six; Kelley was involved only in the first, second, and sixth). The first 13 episodes of The Practice are on DVD, and most of the first three seasons (of eight) can be watched on Hulu Plus. Ally McBeal is complete on DVD and can be streamed via Netflix. Boston Legal is complete on DVD. Monday Mornings and The Crazy Ones are unavailable on disc, but can be purchased for download via Amazon. Boston Public and Harry’s Law, as well as all of Kelley’s more short-lived series, remain unreleased on home video.

Next time: This Friday, join us for a TV Club 10 special edition, as Christopher Bahn picks out the 10 most vital Doctor Who serials—one for every Doctor, but the eighth.