Monday Mornings debuts tonight on TNT at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The career of TV super-producer David E. Kelley has been a long and strange one. After rising to prominence in the late ‘80s as Steven Bochco’s latest wunderkind on the writing staff of L.A. Law—and being handsomely rewarded for it in Emmys and critical acclaim—Kelley kicked off the next decade by creating and writing nearly every episode of the first three seasons of Picket Fences, a quirky small town show clearly meant to be a spin on Northern Exposure that, nonetheless, eventually morphed into a social issues drama in which the residents of said small town faced off with every prominent political issue of the moment. Picket Fences won two drama series Emmys. Thus emboldened, Kelley went on a hot streak where not every show hit—anybody remember Snoops?—but so many did that it sometimes seemed like he was responsible for every show on TV. Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, The Practice: They all hailed from his pen, and they all won multiple Emmys. Kelley remains the only producer to have created and showrun shows that won both the Comedy Series and Drama Series Emmy in the same year.
Kelley was so prolific that his life story also became a big part of what he was about. He was married to Michelle Pfeiffer! He tried to stay far away from the rush-a-day life of Los Angeles! He wrote all of his first drafts in longhand on yellow legal pads! Yet all of the increased exposure also turned a certain part of the critical community against him. With so many shows on the air, his bag of tricks—quirky characters, mixed with social issues and a penchant for overbroad humor and weird twists—became that much more apparent, and some started crying the emperor had no clothes, particularly when The Practice, intended to be a more “realistic” look at a struggling law firm, started floating off into crazytown. It had become apparent that this eventually would happen to most Kelley shows. The only one that largely avoided it was Chicago Hope, and that was mostly written by other writers after a certain point.
Right after Kelley won those two Emmys in the same year, his luck—with critics, with the Emmys, and with viewers—seemed to break. He’s only had two shows run more than two seasons since the year 2000, and both—Boston Public and Boston Legal—had their fair share of problems (though the latter picked up a handful of Emmys for its actors). In recent years, Kelley has seemed increasingly isolated from the world of TV, creating shows that drew liberally from his bag of tricks, while also avoiding the innovations TV has seen since his heyday. His Harry’s Law was a nadir, a weird, over-the-top law drama that was mostly advertised by showing Kathy Bates holding a gun. Yet Kelley could still write the occasional strong teleplay if he really wanted to. He just seemed flummoxed, at times, by the changing TV world.
All of this brings us to Monday Mornings, which is easily the best Kelley pilot since Boston Legal, way back in 2004, and maybe the best since The Practice. What at first seems to be a bog-standard medical drama eventually reveals itself to be something more, and Kelley practices remarkable restraint with his characters and storytelling. There are the occasional character quirks—Bill Irwin is here as a doctor who likes to rock back and forth on his shoes—but they’re believable, the sorts of things you might see people do in real life, rather than wacky, out-of-this-world affectations. The stories can be hyperbolic, but they don’t drag in social issues unless the social issues directly impact them, and the show has a surprising amount of heart. Kelley said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour that he really wanted to match the tone of the book the series was based on—but Dr. Sanjay Gupta—and this shows in the series. TNT sent out three episodes to critics, and while none is perfect, all three show a solid command of the show’s voice.
Make no mistake: This is a throwback drama to the sorts of workplace dramas the networks were turning out in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where large casts of people slept together and had personal story arcs and confronted the social issues of the day. The best example of this form was St. Elsewhere, and Monday Mornings is not a patch on that show. The series often feels quaint, sometimes amusingly so, and no one is going to mistake it for the sort of cutting-edge drama practiced on other cable networks, or even the inversion of the workplace drama form that TNT’s own Southland (a terrific show) often is. If you only watch TV dramas for innovative twists on the Sopranos model, you should stay far, far away from Monday Mornings.
If you enjoy competently done medical dramas, however, there’s plenty to recommend here. At first, the show might seem to be just another hospital show, with intersecting plots and various patients whose lives need to be saved, but each episode ends with one of the titular Monday morning meetings, where the doctors gather to talk over the cases from the previous week, to analyze what might have gone wrong, and to praise the things that went well. These meetings offer the series a sort of structural rigor most other hospital shows lack, and they give each episode a nice rhythm. In addition, most of the doctors on the show are dealing with the human brain, and while that may not seem like an endless story engine, Kelley and his writers find some great uses for it, particularly in a story in the third episode, about a man whom a brash surgeon heals, simply because he can, only to open up an emotional Pandora’s box no one is prepared to deal with.
What also helps is that the series has assembled a tremendous cast, one where the weak link is Jamie Bamber, as the aforementioned brash surgeon, who’s honestly not all that bad, just not up to the standards of, say, Alfred Molina or Ving Rhames. This is a show where even the bit parts seem to be filled with the best actors money can buy, and the black-box theatre aspects of the Monday morning meetings are helped immensely by having Molina there to sneer at the other doctors and keep the proceedings moving. Hell, there’s a storyline in the second episode that shouldn’t work, simply because of how many times anyone who’s watched TV will have seen it, but it does simply because Molina sinks his teeth into it and drags it across the finish line.
Amid this impressive cast, it’s worth singling out the relatively little known Keong Sim, who plays Dr. Sung Park, an American immigrant who’s a brilliant surgeon but speaks very little English and, thus, has a terribly abrupt bedside manner that comforts no one. This is the sort of part Kelley would have over-laden with quirk in previous years, but both Kelley and Sim seem committed to playing out the idea of what it might be like to be this doctor, living in this country, having to deal with these people. The character seems at all times like he might tip over into some sort of racist caricature, but he never quite does. Both Kelley and Sim imbue him with dignity and honor, and they play both his pride in his work and his frustration in those things he is less able at. It’s a surprisingly riveting character, where most viewers wouldn’t expect to find one. (At first, I was terrified this was Kelley’s chance to offer a riff on Han from 2 Broke Girls.)
Look: Monday Mornings isn’t going to restore Kelley to the kind of critical, ratings, or award prominence he enjoyed 15 years ago, and it’s not going to set the world on fire either. It has a host of problems, particularly when it comes to Bill D’Elia’s direction, which has the curious effect of making everybody in the cast look like a plastic action figure version of themselves, thus creating a weird distancing effect from stories that should draw the audience closer to the characters. But there’s also a terrific cast, some solid stories, and a conceit that keeps this from being just another medical drama. It also helps that each episode screened for critics is stronger than the last, suggesting Kelley and his crew are still figuring it out, but are figuring it out rapidly. Monday’s a weak enough night for TV that giving this one a shot for a few weeks isn’t the worst idea in the world. Or, as the old commercials said: Try it. You might like it.