Thinking About David E. Kelly

David E. Kelly has been a wonderful, prolific writer/producer/creator of television shows that have made me laugh, think and cringe since he joined the writing staff of LA Law. He rose in my estimation when he created Picket Fences, a show about an eccentric town but also a series about family. His characters were unique, they were flawed and when he trapped them in the same room and let the words fly, he wrote compelling theater.

For those unfamiliar with this terrific show, the first season is just coming out on DVD this month. It’s certainly one I look forward to re-watching at some point.

However, as brilliant and talented as David Kelly can be, he is also self-destructive and there appear to be no people who can govern him, trimming his excesses. The pattern has repeated itself time and again, from Picket to Ally McBeal to Boston Legal.

It’s more glaring today in the absence of the meaty subject matter we had to chew over from Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing. There, Sorkin sought out dry and seemingly boring topics and then had his characters hold forth in riveting ways. His characters were passionate and took sides and shifted allegiances and were fascinating.

Today, the only show that seemingly touches on any of these moral and ethical issues ripped from the headlines can arguably be Boston Legal. Every time Alan Shore stands up, complete with soap box these days, he makes a wonderful speech. Shirley Schmidt, in court anyway, also makes impassioned speeches about important topics. The court cases are what make the show compelling to watch week in and week out.

It’s away from the court room that has soured Deb and even Robbie on the series and can make me wince on more than one occasion. The eccentricities of David Kelly’s characters make them special and he always has a great eye for casting. But, after a while, Kelly forgets character and sticks only with their foibles and tics turning his people into caricatures. As seasons pass, he begins to populate his shows with characters that stagger the imagination and strain the reality of each series. Ally McBeal, for example, really headed south about the time Dame Edna became a regular and I see it happening again with the addition of Clarence/Clarice as legal secretary to Claire on Legal.

Kelly seems not to know what to do with his sprawling ensemble and has them engage in sophomoric behavior, none more infuriating than this season’s sexual escapades of Denise, Brad and Jeffrey. He’s also suddenly sent out an interesting message that Denise engaging in a round of casual sexual suddenly gets pregnant — I guess adults using common sense protection wouldn’t occur to these brilliant lawyers.

Anyway, Kelly’s messages about Katrina, anti-Semitism, the pharmaceutical business, Homeland Security and the rest get overshadowed by the over-the-top antics that surround the series. It feels schizophrenic and while I will stick with it because of those issues, I feel the show has begun to lose its way in typical David Kelly style.

4 comments

  • Jon M

    I have to agree with you, Bob. BL isn’t nearly as engaging a show as it was when it first spun off from “the practice”. Far too much buffoonery (?), and less “love of the law”. And why doesn’t William Shatner announce himself when he enters a room anymore?
    The first season of “Picket Fences” was amazing, and I plan to pick it up as soon as possible.

  • Bob A

    I agree, and have missed much of Season #3 because of it. The only characters worth watching are Alan and Denny… I just want to see their balcony repartee, and I’ve got a capsule of the entire episode. Yes, James Spader is amazing in the courtroom, and I wish there was a bit more to him out of the courtroom. I found the early season romance between Denny and his “mini-her” amusing, but to soon they let it get out of hand, making it painful to watch. Please, someone reign in the madness….

  • Paul1963

    I’ve never watched Boston Legal, myself, but as a onetime Picket Fences watcher I well remember the problem you’re describing. It seems to kick in around year three or four, typically. Suddenly the plots take a back seat to a combination of “Hey, look how lovable and eccentric we all are!” and “We’re now going to spend 48 minutes arguing about something David E. Kelley is angry about.”

    Fyvush Finkel still seems to be around…imagine Douglas Wambaugh and Denny Crane in the same courtroom.

  • Seems like the slide usually starts when he begins work on another series. ‘Picket Fences’ went downhill when ‘Chicago Hope’ started which went downhill when ‘Ally McBeal’ started (tho ‘The Practice’ started pretty much with ‘Ally McBeal’ – not sure how that affects the formula)….

    Now they say he’s working on a US remake of “Life On Mars.”