Oh, that David E. Kelley – Law, Disorder, Humor, Reveal Issues and Humanity

Mar 15, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Mysteryrat's Maze, TV

by Deborah Harter Williams

David E. Kelley was a lawyer in Boston and then he got bored. He decided to write a screenplay and became a feature film starring Judd Hirsch (From the Hip). Not a big hit but the roots were there – outrageous courtroom behavior, humor and winning the case.

Just the talent that Steven Bochco needed when he decided to create L.A. Law in 1986. Kelley became part of the Emmy-winning writing team and later executive producer. While still working on L.A. Law, Kelley and Bochco also co-created Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-1993). And in 1992 Kelley left to create Picket Fences.

Set in the town of Rome, Wisconsin, Fences had a Twin Peaks atmosphere with eccentric characters to match. “I tend to be a little grand in terms of storytelling; I’ve never been limited by anybody’s sense of reality,” said Kelley, in a quote on IMDB. But it took on real world ethical issues such as cloning and euthanasia through its quirky storylines.

While executive producer and writer for Picket Fences, Kelley created the hospital drama Chicago Hope in 1994. He wrote 40 episodes of Picket Fences and Chicago Hope in one season and developed two new series that premiered in 1997: Ally McBeal and The Practice, both set in Boston law firms.

Ally McBeal with Calista Flockhart as Ally was a comedy-drama (aka dramedy) with romance and some almost surreal scenes and characters. The firm was led by her law school rival Richard Fish (Greg Germann) and John “the biscuit” Cage (Peter MacNichol). Unusual scenes featured Ally’s vision of an animated baby on her computer screen, recurring meetings in the coed restroom, and Cage’s need to “take a moment.”

The Practice (1997-2004) pointed up the conflict between legal ethics and personal morality, as lead character Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) loses his idealism about being a lawyer. Some say it was Kelley’s counterpoint to LA Law. The Practice lawyers innovated what some call the “Patriotism” defense – an appeal to Constitutional Rights over individual laws but when up against the wall they resorted to “Plan B” – a Hail Mary strategy to throw suspicion on someone else (aka SODD – some other dude did it.)

In 2003 a thoroughly demoralized Donnell leaves the firm. Perhaps art was mirroring life as ABC cut the show’s budget and half the actors were let go. The final season introduces mega lawyer Alan Shore (James Spader), brought on board as a rainmaker, even though he’s been fired from his previous job for embezzlement. He produces big buck cases but clashes with the rest of the lawyers over his ethics and his courtroom antics. When they try to oust him he hires the law firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt to defend his interests.

This matches him up with uber attorney Denny Crane and sets up Kelley’s next series – Boston Legal. Running from 2004 to 2008 this series featured great and outrageous moments, with Candice Bergen, Rene Auberjonois, Betty White, John Larroquette and William Shatner, in his greatest role since Star Trek.

As a break from the courtroom, prolific Kelley took a short detour to Boston Public – set in a high school (2000-2004. The casting itself is worthy of an Emmy. In Public he made excellent use of Chi McBride as the principal along with Loretta Devine (strong on Grey’s Anatomy, Eli Stone), Rashida Jones, Jeri Ryan and Kathy Baker and Fyvush Finkel who had done great work for him on Picket Fences.

More recently Kelley created Harry’s Law, premiering on NBC in 2011. Starring Kathy Bates, the show featured a former patent attorney setting up a store front law firm/shoe store in Cincinnati. It was the network’s second most-watched drama but was cancelled because of its older audience (shades of Murder She Wrote). This was followed by the short-lived Monday Mornings (a medical show co-created with Sanjay Gupta) and this season’s Crazy People – a comedy set in an advertising agency with Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Geller.

Kelley always delivers on character, comedy and real issues played out in the courtroom. He writes wonderful rants for marvelous courtroom summations. Watching Spader, Bates, Bergen and Shatner play these moments demonstrates why actors like working with Kelley. These scenes are also thought-provoking and remarkably moving. Kelley finds the emotional touch-points without being saccharine.

No surprise that he is a three time Humanitas award winner – twice for The Practice and once for Picket Fences. The Humanitas Prize is an award for film and television writing intended to promote human dignity, meaning, and freedom.

Thanks Mr. Kelley for the laughs, the wackos and the tearful moments. Mostly thanks for great writing that gets us to think about the world in a new way.

Check out more TV reviews in KRL’s TV section!

Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.


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