David Kelley's Prime Time

Through 'Picket Fences,''Ally McBeal' and 'The Practice,' the Emmy magnet's pen has become the mightiest weapon in television.

By David Zurawik (Sun Television Critic)

LOS ANGELES -- It was one of the hottest Fox Television parties in years. Calista Flockhart and Gillian Anderson in the same room. How could it get any better?

Then in walked David E. Kelley with his wife, actress Michelle Pfeiffer.

There was a feeding frenzy of television critics instantly surrounding the couple. But all the questions were going to Pfeiffer.

After a few minutes, Kelley slipped away, almost unnoticed.

"Happens all the time," he said matter-of-factly as he surveyed the scene of two dozen reporters sticking microphones and tape recorders in his wife's face and hanging on her every word. "I'm used to it."

That was two years ago, in the summer of 1997, as Fox was about to launch a new Kelley creation called "Ally McBeal." Kelley was already a highly successful and Emmy-Award-winning TV producer who had reinvigorated Steven Bochco's "L.A. Law" in 1990 and then went on to create "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope."

But today, in the summer of 1999, Kelley is a superstar producer well on his way to becoming a Hollywood legend. And in the week after his signature series "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" racked up 26 Emmy nominations, Kelley was the one being mobbed at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena. There, the Television Critics Association presented him with the trophy for Individual Achievement in Drama, but, at the age of 43, he had also been nominated for a career achievement award along with Don Hewitt, Aaron Spelling, Norman Lear, Dick Clark and Barbara Walters.

"How do I feel about the nomination?" he said before the ceremony. "Old. Those other nominees are so old. But, really, I'm not sure I belong in that group."

Lear won the award, but Kelley definitely belongs in that group. Kelley hasn't yet had the impact of Lear, who took the sitcom out of fantasy land in 1970 and, through his creation "All in the Family," plugged it into the cultural revolution that had begun during the previous decade.

A more apt comparison for Kelley would be to Steven Bochco, the man who brought Kelley to Hollywood from Boston in 1989 to work on a sitcom pilot called "Doogie Howser, M.D.," about a boy-wonder medical doctor. Kelley has yet to reinvent any genre the way Bochco did the cop drama with "Hill Street Blues" in 1981. But it is safe to say that Kelley owns the courtroom drama the way Bochco owns the cop show.

And, while both Lear and Bochco are writers, neither has ever been nearly as prolific as Kelley, who last year wrote 40 of 46 episodes of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice."

"He's amazing. There's nobody like him," said Jeff Sagansky, the former president of entertainment at CBS and co-president of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who put Kelley in business for himself when he signed the attorney-turned-writer to create the quirky small-town drama "Picket Fences" for CBS in 1991.

The auteur

"I call him the TV auteur, because he writes all this stuff himself. He's an incredibly prolific writer and producer," said Henry Bromell, himself a pretty prolific writer-producer on such series as "Northern Exposure" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," where he won two Peabody Awards. Bromell is now executive producer for Kelley's totally retooled "Chicago Hope" this season on CBS.

"Auteur is absolutely the right term for Kelley, in the sense of artists who create their own universe in their work and make us want to go and live there with them," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at the University of Syracuse and author of "The Second Golden Age of Television Drama: Hill Street Blues to ER."

"Kelley is already right up there with the biggest names of TV auteurs -- Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling, if you want to go with the pantheon of great dead guys," said Thompson. "Or Steven Bochco and Tom Fontana, if you want to talk about TV auteurs today. And, in the end, none of them -- even Serling -- were as prolific."

This year, in addition to "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," the series for which he writes virtually every episode, Kelly will write the season opener and serve as executive producer on another of his creations, "Chicago Hope."

Furthermore, he has created "Snoops," a stylish, sexy action series about a group of unconventional private eyes that will join the ABC schedule in September. Kelley will also serve as executive producer on both a half-hour version of "Ally McBeal," called "Ally," that will air Tuesday nights on Fox -- with the same actors and some of the same scenes -- and the third season of the hourlong version, which airs Mondays.

Kelley plays down the seeming impossibility of what he's doing.

"It's really not that complicated. It's mainly one day I'm writing `The Practice,' and the next day I'm writing `Ally McBeal.' And I find time within those days to read scripts on the other shows and give my notes on those scripts," Kelley said.

"When I'm in one world, the other doesn't exist. If I'm writing an episode of `The Practice,' and you ask me about a scene on `Ally,' you might as well tap into the Internet and ask someone who's watching for their opinion.

"Beyond that, I only have one assistant. I know where she is most of the time. And I guess I delegate most of the `produce-orial' work to a great group of producers, which sort of allows me to stay in my office with my pen," he said.

The pen thing is a big deal with Kelley, because he writes in longhand on a yellow legal pad with a Paper Mate pen. Why Paper Mate? Because the other, more expensive, pens tend to smear more, said Kelley, who writes left-handed.

The other details that matter: Kelley said he works 9 to 6 weekdays and never on weekends. He has two children -- a daughter, 5, and a son, 4. Despite his output, he insists that he is not a workaholic.

In person, Kelley seems somewhere between laid-back and outright bored. Interviewers have been known to comfort one another after talking to him, telling each other not to take it personally; that's just the way he is.

One interviewer said, "It's as if he's staring right past you, thinking about something else as you talk. You don't know what he's thinking, but you know it's smarter than what you are."

Like his lead characters in "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," there is also a slight air of superiority to the shaggy-haired, boyishly good-looking Kelley. But he is unfailingly polite. And if he does seem slightly superior, who can blame him?

Thumbnail descriptions always seem to end with the punch line, "and he's married to Michelle Pfeiffer," as in "He's smart, successful, good-looking, and he's married to Michelle Pfeiffer." But the seemingly charmed life extends even further back.

How about captain of the hockey team at Princeton, where he got his bachelor's degree in 1979 before earning a law degree from Boston University in 1983?

After three years of working as a real estate lawyer in Boston -- yes, same city as Ally (Flockhart) in "Ally McBeal" and Bobby (Dylan McDermott) in "The Practice" -- he wrote a screenplay and eventually came to the attention of Bochco.

First big success

The pilot of "Doogie Howser, M.D." for Bochco, Kelley's first major TV credit, is a brilliant piece of work. The final scene, with the teen-age Howser sitting alone in his room at the end of a long day, typing an entry into his computer journal, is touching and profound.

"Lost my first patient today. Kissed my first girl. Life will never be the same," he types on his computer screen, making a connection between sexual awakening and death that goes all the way back to poets like John Donne. That's not bad for a network sitcom about a kid doctor.

That closing thought from Doogie was also an early sounding of what would become a fundamental Kelley riff -- the way personal and professional lives are often linked in his characters through sex. It's as if their sexual energy and hunger for professional success are coming from the very same place. Kelley's law offices are nothing if not highly sexualized workplaces.

Remember attorney Arnie Becker and his assistant, Roxanne, crashing through the ceiling naked and fully in the embrace of love at McKenzie, Brackman, Cheney, Kuzak and Becker in "L.A. Law"? That was Kelley.

The fundamental insights might be those of a 17th-century metaphysical poet, but with Kelley, they are filtered through a very modern existential lens. The conclusion: Nothing highlights our absurdity like our sexuality. This is Kelley as the John Barth of prime time.

Kelley's talent for the dramatic and bizarre plot twist was also demonstrated on "L.A. Law." Remember Rosalind's stepping into an open elevator shaft one Thursday night on NBC? Talk about water-cooler buzz the morning after that one.

By the end of the 1990 TV season, everyone wanted Kelley to write for them. Sagansky, who left Brandon Tartikoff's team at NBC and took over as head of programming at CBS, was the one who got him.

"After he was hired on `L.A. Law,' we wanted to get him to do a series," Sagansky remembered. "So he created `Picket Fences' for us. And I called him up and asked if he had some story outlines I could see -- outlines for each episode of about 10 to 12 pages. I wanted to know what we had coming.

"And he said, `Well, I don't really work that way, but I can tell you what's going to happen.' And I said, `OK, tell me.' And he said, `Well, in the first episode, the sheriff arrests the wrong guy.' "

"And then there's silence. And I said, `Yeah?' And he says, `Well, that's all I have, but I can have a script for you in four days.' And I'm thinking, `What have I gotten myself into?' But he did have a script in four days, a finished script, and each page was riveting."

Sagansky told Kelley that he had to hire a staff of writers, and even though Kelley did, he still wrote all the "Fences" scripts himself. Only when Kelley developed "Chicago Hope" did he let his staff write. "A hospital show didn't interest him the way lawyer shows do," Sagansky explained.

The clout Kelley has these days is evidenced by his ability to keep "Chicago Hope," which was just nominated for three Emmys, on the CBS schedule this fall despite weak ratings.

In May, as part of its retooling, he hired award-winning novelist and screenwriter Bromell as co-executive producer. Bromell will write most of the episodes this year. Kelley will mainly serve as a consultant -- the same role he'll play on "Snoops."

"I'll tell you what I've noticed working with him, is that he delegates the producing chores so thoroughly that it makes the writing possible," said Bromell.

Consistently good

What still seems impossible, though, is how consistently good the writing is.

"Kelley is such a good writer, it's almost as if he can't resist showing off. He'll write first acts that paint him into an impossible corner that you think he'll never get out of," said Thompson, of Syracuse University. "You can't help but stay tuned to see how he's going to do it."

A good example is the episode from this season on "Ally McBeal" that featured a young boy who is dying of leukemia and wants to sue God. Ally and her team negotiate a victory after suing the boy's church to make it pay for treatment, but the boy dies anyway. It was one of the most moving scenes of the TV season.

That's the other thing about Kelley: He can be incredibly sentimental and melodramatic and get away with it. He shows the boy's spirit leaving the hospital and heading toward heaven. God is definitely not dead in the world of David E. Kelley.

A passionate kiss in that same episode between Ally and her boyfriend (Jesse L. Martin) also seems relevant in the wake of the NAACP's attack on the four major networks for the lack of on-screen diversity. Their interracial romance has engendered discussion because it seemed to take place in a never-never land where no one noticed.

"I think the fact that David Kelley decided not to make an issue out of the fact that I'm black and she's white was a great thing and brave thing to do," Martin said last week.

"We are a consciously colorblind show," Kelley told the Los Angeles Times. "In the history of the show, we have never addressed race. The reason is simple. In my naive dream, I wish that the world could be like this. Since Ally lives in a fanciful and whimsical world, there are not going to be any racial differences or tensions. All people are one under the sun."

Kelley seems to delight in the unreality of "Ally," with its morphing body parts, dancing babies and juries that sing verdicts back to the judge. In fact, it sounds as if the joy he finds in his weekly visits to "Ally" Land might be the very secret to his incredible output with "Ally" and the more realistic and traditional courtroom drama of "The Practice."

"When I pick up the pen to go into the `Ally' world, it's like a holiday in some ways. And, by the time I finish an episode, I feel like I've been on such an extended vacation from `The Practice' that for an odd reason I feel more refreshed when I then do go back to start the next episode of `The Practice.'

"Today, I can literally finish an `Ally' episode at lunchtime and immediately start `The Practice,' " he added.

"So, how long can I go on this way with the two shows? My plan with `The Practice' and `Ally' is to stay on as long as those two show go. I hope it's forever."

And no one in Hollywood is betting against it.

"No one can do one weekly drama all by himself," says Ed Zwick, the Emmy-Award-winning co-creator of "thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life" and the new ABC drama "Once and Again."

"No one except David Kelley," Zwick added. "He's just a freak of nature."