`Ally McBeal's' prolific producer David E. Kelley goes overboard with sex and schlock|
By JOHN CARMAN
The new hallmarks of television are shock and titillation, and even a producer and writer as talented as David E. Kelley is susceptible.
Apparently overextended with a batch of TV series and feature films, Kelley seems to be turning to cheap tricks to keep his projects afloat.
This is the same man who, just one month ago, achieved a television first by winning the Emmys for best drama (``The Practice'') and best comedy (``Ally McBeal''). But the strain is showing.
Last week on ``Chicago Hope,'' a show co-executive produced by Kelley, a shabby little piece of network history was recorded when the doctor played by Mark Harmon uttered the dreaded ``s'' word. It was utterly gratuitous and probably calculated to attract attention. The show gained half a ratings point over its season average.
On Monday (9 p.m. on Channel 2), the heavily promoted season premiere of ``Ally McBeal'' -- the Fox promos crow that ``the only thing more shocking than the first five minutes is the way it ends!'' -- is an episode called ``Car Wash.''
It's called ``Car Wash'' because, in those first five minutes, Ally (series star Calista Flockhart) disrobes and has sex in a car wash. Ally swings into action in the rinse section, to be exact. Her partner is a total stranger played by guest star Jason Gedrick.
Later, Ally rhapsodizes about another TV taboo, the ``f'' word, though she never says it. ``That's what we were doing,'' she tells one of her legal colleagues, John Cage (Peter MacNicol). ``And that's what I want to do to him again, that vulgar verb.''
The incident is just one of several sexual themes in Monday's season opener, which Kelley wrote.
MacNicol's character worries that he's lost his sexual ``rhythm'' after his lover, Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi), wants to have phone sex with him. And two female characters, launching a law practice, audition prospective male employees by ordering them to undress.
Maybe Kelley's been away from the Boston legal world too long.
A story line on ``The Practice'' last week involved a man accused of exposing himself. Because his attribute didn't match the ``sad, pathetic little penis'' described by the victim, the defendant exposed himself in front of the judge and jury to flaunt the difference.
``Snoops,'' another Kelley co-production, most recently featured a political candidate caught in flagrante delicto on a sex tape.
Kelley's personal participation varies in these shows and in the half- hour ``Ally,'' his fifth network series. He's believed to be most directly involved in ``Ally McBeal'' and ``The Practice.''
In fairness, the other story line on ``The Practice'' this past Sunday was a powerful, albeit sensational, look at a famed trial lawyer (James Whitmore) who is senile and accused of murdering his wife. But you can't watch his shows without realizing that Kelley has gone beyond sex and shock as judicious components of high-caliber TV. They're becoming his stock-in-trade -- a telltale sign that his creative tank is approaching empty.
Small wonder, with Kelley's workload. Not only does he have five series on TV but he also had two films in theaters this year, ``Lake Placid'' and ``Mystery, Alaska.'' (Kelley appears to be doing his prestigious work on TV and slumming in the movies.)
``Ally McBeal'' is where it's most conspicuous that Kelley is spread too thin. Judging by Monday's season premiere, that show has drifted free of any plausible moorings.
Leaving your car and stripping naked to have sex with a stranger in a car wash? Lawyers ordering job applicants to take off their shirts and shake their behinds? Ally also stops a wedding, three times.
A cynic might add that Kelley stretches credibility when Ally gets wet in the car wash. Flockhart could probably pass through bone dry.
This was supposed to be a show about a single, neurotic young lawyer making her way in the professional world. But it's practically entered the realm of erotic fantasy.
Putting aside ``Ally McBeal's'' comedy classification, Kelley has been American television's best hope for pungent drama about a spectrum of issues
--sex is only one -- that touch the human soul and psyche.
But now the most provocative thing on offer from TV's most honored producer is the needlessly offensive broadcast of the ``s'' word?
Something is badly askew, and the man who is supposed to be part of the solution is instead making himself part of the problem.
For starters, Kelley apparently needs some revitalizing rest and about three fewer network shows. Then we'd see talent again, instead of flashy but demeaning parlor tricks.