Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Kelleyvision: The Rise and Fall and Rise of TV's David E. Kelley

By Nicholas Stix
October 16, 2004
A Different Drummer


A year or two ago, Chi McBride, then starring in the Fox TV series Boston Public (2001-2004), said that we needed a new phrase to describe the world of Boston Public creator-producer-writer, David E. Kelley: “Kelleyvision.” Though McBride meant the term as a compliment, it is a double-edged sword. “Kelleyvision” embraces the absurd, the magical, and the love of love. Unfortunately, it also embraces the politically correct, hatred of the law, talking heads drama, the limited attention span of the MTV generation and the reduction of even the absurd and the magical to paint-by-the-numbers hackery.

Well, Kelleyvision is back. October 3 saw the premiere of Kelley’s newest show, on ABC at 10 p.m. Sundays. Boston Legal (an earlier title was Fleet Street) stars James Spader and William Shatner. A spin-off of The Practice (1997-2004), Boston Legal is the story of relatively new attorney “Alan Shore,” an acerbic, effete, self-loathing, apparently amoral saint in sinner’s clothing, who works in a high-powered, Boston law firm specializing in civil cases. Playing “Alan” with a sardonic, supercilious mien, James Spader does a pretty fair job, channeling the spirit of Clifton Webb. The firm is run by the flamboyant, narcissistic, yet irresistible “Denny Crane” (Shatner). Crane likes to say, portentously, “Denny Crane,” as if his mere name carried weight – which it does. Crane’s looniness and Shore’s criminality (blackmailing opponents) in the pursuit of winning cases for deserving clients are yet two more variations on Kelley’s theme, “The law is an ass.”

Boston Legal is the third series Kelley has set in a Boston law office. (Boston Public was set in a Boston high school.) I wonder if the title Boston Legal is an in-joke, since every one of Kelley’s Boston lawyer shows could have been called, Boston Law. (Or Hollywood Law, since not only are they all shot at Kelley’s Manhattan Beach, California studios, but none has any Boston flavor.)

The creator-producer-writer of The Practice, Ally McBeal (1997-2002), Picket Fences (1992-1996) and Boston Public, among the eleven shows he has written and/or produced and/or created, and winner of nine Emmy awards, David E. Kelley is a TV legend. While only 48 years old, Kelley already belongs to the pantheon of broadcast TV drama writer-producers, along with such luminaries as Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men, The Defenders); John Hawkesworth. (Upstairs, Downstairs); Richard Levinson and William Link (Columbo); Steven Bochco and David Milch (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue); Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (Family, thirtysomething, Once and Again); Joshua Brand and John Falsey (St. Elsewhere); William Broyles Jr., John Wells, and John Sacret-Young (China Beach); Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Street); Cris Carter (Millennium); Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing); and the gold standard, Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Patterns, The Rack, and every anthology drama series on 1950s’ and early 1960s’ TV).

The Bochco Connection

David Kelley trained as a lawyer, and briefly worked as one, until he found that he could make much more money writing about the law than practicing it. In 1986, he began working on L.A. Law (1986-1994) as a story editor. L.A. Law producer, writer, and co-creator (with Terry Louise Fisher) Steven Bochco was then the hottest and most powerful producer in TV. Bochco had previously created, produced, and co-written Hill Street Blues (1981-87), a groundbreaking series, which with 26 Emmys became the most honored drama in TV history.

(Hill was heavily influenced by Police Story (1973-77), the first police show to focus on policemen’s personal lives. Police Story was created by Joseph Wambaugh for NBC. Through Wambaugh’s brilliant, realistic police novels, The New Centurions (1970) and The Blue Knight (1972), the veteran LAPD patrolman and detective emerged as the Bard of the Beat. P.S. September 12, 2012: According to one TV historian, however, the primary influence on Hill was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, due to its “people at work” angle.)

After one year, Bochco named the prolific, talented Kelley L.A. Law’s chief writer and executive producer. Though it may no longer seem so, the show was at the time innovative, in dramatizing not only court cases, but lawyers’ office politics and personal crises, as well. And as it was a Bochco production, there was a lot of sex, or what then counted as “sex.” Kelley won three Emmys for his work on L.A. Law, which won 12 Emmys and for a few seasons was the most prestigious, if not the best drama on TV, while getting solid, if unspectacular ratings. (L.A. Law rose as high as #13 in average Nielsen ratings for 1988-89, its third season. The low-rated thirtysomething (1987-1991) and China Beach (1988-1991), however, ever tottering on the verge of cancellation, were considerably better shows.)

L.A. Law, like other Bochco series, pushed the envelope with lesbian kisses, interracial relationships, salty language and over-the-top story lines. But it could also be -- in what would become Kelley’s trademark -- now deeply moving, now ribaldly funny. The term that describes such shows is “dramedy.”

One characteristic of L.A. Law that would unfortunately become typical of most of Kelley’s best shows, was static direction. The actors tended to be talking heads. On L.A. Law, the director would crosscut between scenes, with an accompanying sound effect, to give the impression of movement, a method Kelley would copy on The Practice. On some shows, particularly Ally McBeal, Kelley would go to great lengths to avoid the “talking-heads” problem.

The most memorable story arc on L.A. Law covered parts of five episodes during its fourth season (1989-1990), in following the murder trial of “Prof. Earl Williams” (Carl Lumbly, whose real-life wife, Vonetta McGee, played Williams’ wife), who was charged with having beaten his student assistant/lover to death. Kelley co-wrote one episode and wrote the final one solo. Lumbly, whom I’d never before seen (and whose name I unsuccessfully sought to determine from the opening credits) played “Williams” as a restrained, disciplined academic who nevertheless had an explosive temper, which he was usually able to keep under wraps, but which the prosecutor was able to provoke on cross-examination. Williams was convicted, but eventually exonerated on appeal. I thought, however, that the story left it ambiguous, as to whether he was innocent.

The most poignant episode of L.A. Law that I recall, and which was written by Kelley (with Stephen Katz) is listed variously as “God Rest Ye Murray Gentleman/Little Gentleman,” and first aired on December 13, 1990. “Murray” was “Murray Melman,” the lovable but schizophrenic father of legal secretary “Roxanne Melman” (Susan Ruttan), as played by Vincent Gardenia, who often played now gregarious, now cantankerous -- and Murray was both -- working-class characters.

“Murray” would have episodes, in which he would think he was Jackie Gleason’s “Ralph Kramden” character from The Honeymooners. Murray would shout at his daughter (“To the moon, Alice!”), "Roxanne," whom he put in the role of “Ralph’s” long-suffering but loyal wife, “Alice” (who had been played on The Honeymooners by Audrey Meadows). Since Murray needs companionship, he is paired with the retarded mailroom clerk, “Benny Stulwicz” (Larry Drake), who also could use a roommate. When Benny agrees to room with him, Murray exclaims, “What a pair; the nut and the retard!”

On “God Rest Ye …,” which was that year’s Christmas episode, Murray rigged a reclining chair, if memory serves, to automatically move back and forth. Benny returned home one night to find Murray in the chair, dead from a heart attack, the chair moving back and forth … back and forth. (Gardenia would die on December 7, 1992, while on the road with a stage show.)

In what would become yet another trademark Bochco move, the show sought to increase audience share by casting so-so and subpar “non-white” performers (e.g., Jimmy Smits, A. Martinez), a move that has rarely if ever been commercially successful, and has always been dramatic poison. (In recent years, as Bochco’s creative powers have dwindled, in shows like City of Angels (2000) and the moribund NYPD Blue (1993-2005), the featuring of politically correct casting, skin, and vulgar language have increasingly been all he has had to offer.)

As British TV scholar Mike Spadoni has pointed out, when Kelley left L.A. Law in 1991 to hang out his own shingle, with Picket Fences on CBS, "‘L.A. Law’ never recovered creatively … and the ratings began to fall.” By then, Bochco was creatively burnt out. Since then, he has only been successful to the degree that he has used his clout to broadcast the work of brilliant, younger writer-producers, such as David Milch, the creative genius behind NYPD Blue (which immediately became unwatchable upon Milch’s departure, following the 1999-2000 season).

In 1989, Kelley also co-created and co-wrote the show Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-1993) with Bochco. The show, about a prodigy (Neil Patrick Harris) who becomes a practicing physician at the age of 14, bears no resemblance to anything Kelley has done in recent years. Doogie Howser is gentle, wholesome, and involves normal family relations (James B. Sikking, who had played the SWAT team leader on Hill Street Blues, played the father). Although neither a ratings nor a critical smash, Doogie was a middling successful, entertaining show. Bill D’Elia, who worked on Doogie for Bochco after Kelley left the series, has worked for Kelley ever since the latter went out on his own, and now serves as one of his Boston Legal producers.

As atypical as Doogie Howser is of Kelley’s (not to mention Bochco’s!) work, in retrospect I think it was crucial, in helping him decide what he would initially do on his own. When the man who would become indelibly associated with shows about childless, usually single, “people at work” (the Hill Street Blues/L.A. Law model) finally created his own series, Picket Fences, the center of Picket’s fictional cosmos is a functional, wholesome, loving family, the "Brocks." I don’t think that would have happened, had Kelley not done Doogie Howser.

Another bond between Kelley and Bochco is the dream of creating an art form fusing drama, comedy, music and dance. Call it “new age vaudeville” or “TV opera.” Bochco took his big gamble on the lavishly produced Cop Rock (1990), which, although I liked it, was one of the worst commercial and critical disasters in TV history. Influenced by Dennis Potter’s classic, 1986 British miniseries, The Singing Detective, on Cop Rock, at critical moments, the characters would break into song. On Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal and Boston Public, Kelley has worked music into his stories with wildly mixed results.

(Actually, such an art form already existed -- the modern, Broadway musical. It was created in 1927, as Show Boat, by Oscar Hammerstein II, the grandson and namesake of the man who had built Broadway’s theater district. Hammerstein took the “musical,” which had essentially been a light-as-a-feather revue of songs, and provided it with a play (the “book”) that was so cohesive, ambitious, and dramatically powerful, that the book was by itself a significant work of art.

One can argue whether the art form died along with Hammerstein II in 1960, or enjoyed a reprieve for a time with Stephen Sondheim and the latter’s collaborators. In any event, no American musical “book” writer, composer, lyricist or choreographer is presently working at anywhere near the level that Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, or say, Jerome Robbins routinely did. The proof that the form is dead, or at least moribund, is that the great American musical today can be seen only in revivals, and then often only after being subjected to pc censorship. Note that Rodgers and Hammerstein, in addition to creating the music, lyrics, and books for their collaborations, also produced them. They may well have been the models for the TV writer-producer.)

The one time David Kelley was dead solid perfect in his use of music, was on his medical series Chicago Hope (1994-2000). In the episode “Love and Hope” (January 9, 1995), in a scene mixing Kelley’s sense of the absurd with his passionate belief in undying love (which alternates with his passionate belief in the need to “move on”), perfectionist surgeon “Dr. Jeffrey Geiger” (Mandy Patinkin) is having his difficulties directing a Christmas show featuring his insane wife, “Laurie” (Kim Greist) and an orchestra staffed entirely by other patients in the lunatic asylum in which the wife is confined. Patinkin, one of the world’s greatest singers, gives a heartbreaking rendition of the “Casey” medley, including John Palmer and Charles Ward’s “And the Band Played on” and Randy Newman’s “Marie.”

Steven Bochco may be a burnt-out case, but three types of his successes and failures: People at work (including sex and foul language), the wholesome family dramedy, and TV vaudeville, have lived on in the work of his former protégé.

The Harm Race

The problem with pushing the envelope is that in what becomes a harm race to see who can be trashier, other series push back. Soon enough, what once was cutting edge becomes dull and staid. While Kelley has not used flesh (as opposed to sex) or gutter language to the degree that Bochco has, I believe Kelley was the first TV producer to have a character use an obscenity, and the first to show a woman’s naked breast on primetime, entertainment, broadcast TV, two dubious milestones he accomplished on Chicago Hope. Kelley has also used the “n-word” on Boston Public and the word “dyke” on girls club.

Today, the harm race has advanced to the point where on cable, HBO’s Six Feet Under mixes pretentiousness, political correctness, constant use of the “f” word and simulated scenes of heterosexual and male homosexual intercourse – stuff which once earned movies an “X” rating. But rather than being seen as an unwitting caricature of a bad, pc show, Six Feet Under passes for “deep” among today’s lefty, nihilist snobs. (Unless, that is, such faddists already consider it passe.) Perhaps, next year, the sex will no longer be simulated.

The commercial problem with affirmative action casting, is that black folks don’t want to watch series with some black faces; excepting perhaps for a white Stepanfetchit character or two (recall the long-running, now defunct Steve Harvey Show), they want to watch series with only black faces, and most white folks don’t want to watch shows they don’t enjoy, just for the sake of feeling morally superior to other white folks.

I’ll say this for David Kelley: To my knowledge, he has not, as a rule, cast mediocre or incompetent black or Hispanic performers in major roles. For example, he cast black actor Chi McBride on Boston Public as the school's principal, eventually making him the show’s star, and McBride was without a doubt the best performer on the show. Kelley also cast black actress-singer Loretta Devine in a major role on the show as a teacher, and her performances were often superior to the lines Kelley wrote for her. However, in recent years, Kelley has increasingly loaded up secondary roles with mediocre black and Hispanic “talent.” (Then again, as time went on on Boston Public, Kelley's white talent left a lot to be desired, as well. For the most glaring example, beyond her wonderful "personality," co-star Jeri Ryan didn't have a heck of a lot to offer viewers.)

The use of affirmative action casting and story lines, obscene language, and skin are integral to the harm race, because each helps make TV, and thus American culture, cruder, less entertaining, and with rare exceptions (such as The Sopranos), artistically inferior. In even the best works in the performing arts, non-artistic factors always play a role. In the harm race, however, non-artistic factors either dominate or obliterate artistic factors.

David Kelley has a history of baiting white Christians, white owners of legal firearms, and conservatives. Meanwhile, he embraces black Christians. (Apparently, God loves blacks more than He does whites. And in Kelley’s universe, there are no black owners of legal firearms.) To which my socialist readers will likely say, “He sounds brilliant,” while my conservative and Republican readers will doubtless respond, “Why would any sensible person want to watch his shows?”

Well, I can’t speak for sensible people, but when Kelley is on his game, he produces episodes that you will fondly remember 15 years later. How many people are there in TV about whom you can say that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I clicked on this link on the MSN homepage and followed several other links associated with it mentioning sexual assault cases. Couldn't help but notice that every perp was black, no mention was made of the race of the victims but the disproportion of black rapists is very noticeable. Some will say the media is just putting black suspects on the front pages of national news but you notice the same thing in local news reports, even small local neighborhood newspapers you notice the disproportion.