Harry’s Law debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
There was a time when David E. Kelley was legitimately one of the great TV writers, one of those guys whose output was always worth looking forward to. His scripts for L.A. Law were doing things that nobody else on TV was capable of, blending huge, operatic moments with current events driven storylines and zany comedy in ways that seem a bit grating now but felt genuinely fresh at the time. His first series, Picket Fences, may have been the best thing he ever produced, an obvious attempt to blend his favorite issues and legal moments with a quirky, Northern Exposure-influenced small town drama, but a surprisingly good one, especially in its first two seasons. (The less said about the Kelley-less fourth and final season, the better.) From there, he created the generally well-liked Chicago Hope, which may be the show of his that has aged the best, perhaps because he was more reliant on a writing staff for it than many of his other series.
Then, the late ‘90s hit, and they broke Kelley. On ABC, he launched The Practice, a tough, gritty little show about a wayward law office that took on tough cases. The lawyers were idealistic, the theme song was filled with the squawks of the city, and the plotting was as realistic as Kelley knew how to make it, as if he was trying to atone for everything he’d done on L.A. Law. The fall after The Practice began, he launched Ally McBeal on Fox, a series that was the polar opposite of The Practice, as if he’d split his writing personality in two and sent one half to each network. Ally McBeal was a soapy, zany direct hit at the zeitgeist. It took off like no show he’d ever done before, launching itself directly into the cultural conversation. And when The Practice suffered from low ratings, it became all too tempting to make that show wackier and wackier and …
After that point, Kelley chased the ridiculous highs he had hit in that magical year of 1999, when both The Practice and Ally McBeal won the drama and comedy series Emmys. (He remains the only producer to have pulled off something this impressive, and all he had to do to make it happen was defeat the first season of The Sopranos. Nothing that tough!) Ally fell into a solipsistic mess, as he kept attempting to recreate the buzz he’d found in the first two seasons. (Robert Downey, Jr., briefly stopped by while in recovery and made the show relevant again before collapsing again into abuse.) The Practice went farther and farther over the top. Aaron Sorkin came along as the next writer of big broadcast hits that, nonetheless, appealed to people who fancied themselves “smart.” Cable dramas began to dominate the landscape. Kelley launched show after show after show, and he couldn’t get much of anything to stick, finally turning The Practice into Boston Legal, a terrible show that was, nonetheless, incredibly loved.
And then Boston Legal left the air, and America was a Kelley-free zone. For just over 18 months.
Harry’s Law, Kelley’s latest attempt to come up with something new to say within the confines of the legal drama, launches tonight, on a network Kelley hasn’t worked with before, NBC. And it has all of the same problems Kelley has had for over a decade now. If we were to make a brief list of them, they would include a general inability to create characters that aren’t mouthpieces for a particular viewpoint or a collection of heavily stylized quirks, an inability to create anything resembling a realistic female character that’s not a cliché, an understanding of the United States that seems to stem almost entirely from reading old L.A. Law scripts he wrote and random user diaries on Daily Kos, and a complete avoidance of anything like nuance. It’s not uncommon for writers who experience success to have trouble evolving after that success (again, see Sorkin, who took nearly a decade to figure out how to follow up The West Wing), but Kelley seems to have evolved backward. He had all of these problems when he launched Picket Fences, but he somehow didn’t have them as much as he does now.
I’m talking around the premise of Harry’s Law, and that’s because it’s really just about the stupidest premise you’ll hear of. Kathy Bates plays Harry, a patent lawyer so old and cantankerous she could only be played by, well, Kathy Bates. Harry’s fired by an ungrateful boss, and when she’s off on her way to prove that she didn’t deserve to be fired, she gets hit by a car. She doesn’t die because—I shit you not—she’s so fat, so she decides to open her own practice in an inner city neighborhood that’s apparently being gentrified or something because the only place she can find to set up shop is in a designer shoe store. Brittany Snow, as a truly vile and terribly conceived fashionplate character, and Nate Corddry, as garden variety idealistic lawyer #1, come along to help out and deserve better from the writing. As you can probably imagine, Harry is going to spend week after week defending the defenseless, coming up with wacky, incredibly liberal answers to clearly criminal acts, and winning over jury after jury with her impassioned speeches. (That is, except for the times when she loses, so the sad piano music can kick in and we can see how much she really cares beneath the gruff, gun-toting exterior.) So this is a show where the most developed character is a cliché and the next-most developed character is a guy who repeats everything he says, built entirely on an outdated structure, written by a man who doesn’t seem to have left his house since 1985. (Except I saw him at press tour, so I know he has.)
Kelley, at least, has a point of view. But his point of view gets in the way of him being able to do anything else, like plot good drama or create compelling characters. It’d be nice to have a TV show arguing that the war on drugs is actually a detriment to the American people if it did so in a compelling and nuanced fashion (like, say, The Wire), but Kelley’s unable to write anything other than bold-faced liberal arguments winning over everybody through the power of rhetoric. Even if you agree with the content of the arguments, it’d be nice for the foils to those viewpoints to be something other than cardboard cutouts that occasionally spout dialogue. In other words, it would be nice to not have Kathy Bates pretty much win the war on drugs by convincing everyone it’s unnecessary in a courtroom speech. Similar shit worked on Picket Fences because it was a small town, and it was vaguely plausible to believe that folks there might try some wacky stuff just to see what happened. It’s less believable in Cincinnati, even if it’s Bates doing the arguing. Kelley talked at press tour about how he wants this to be a show about the income disparity in the United States, about how the poor keep getting poorer and Harry comes to realize that through operating out of the inner city. And that’s a great subject for a TV show, utterly fantastic. Except Kelley doesn’t seem to be making a show about that at all. He’s making a show about a woman who operates a law firm out of a shoe store, filled with racial stereotypes that would have felt outdated when he was doing L.A. Law.
It’d be nice to say that a project like Harry’s Law finally manages to bring back the Kelley who felt so potent way back when. It’d be nice to say that this is a project that doesn’t waste what amounts to a very strong cast. It’d be nice to say that Bates, at least, realized that this material was inherently silly and went way over the top, creating some sort of camp performance of the sort that only Kathy Bates is capable of. But all of those statements would be lies. Everybody involved in this seems to think they’re making the next great drama, when what they’re really making is an ultra-silly, slow-motion train wreck. For Kelley to be relevant again, he needs to ditch the legal dramas or turn back toward what he was originally going to do on The Practice, by trying to make something realistic and gritty and nuanced. Until then, he’s just going to be stuck with the same old mess he’s had all these many years.