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Tuned In: David E. Kelley returns to small-town drama; John Wells goes it alone with 'West Wing'

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Two of Hollywood's biggest names behind the screen, writers/producers John Wells ("ER") and David E. Kelley ("The Practice"), face similar challenges this television season: Staking out new creative territory.

For Kelley, it's a return to the small-town family drama he popularized in "Picket Fences" with "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.," which premieres tonight at 10 on CBS.

For Wells, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, the task is probably more daunting. With the departure of Aaron Sorkin, who wrote almost every episode of "The West Wing" in its four years on the air, executive producer Wells has now stepped in as show runner. He wrote tonight's fifth-season premiere, which airs at 9 on NBC.

"Part of the problem is, it's a bit like you're Ethel Merman's understudy in 'Gypsy,' and at intermission she comes down with the flu," Wells said in a teleconference with TV reporters last week. "And you're standing backstage to do the second act and you hear the stage manager announce to the crowd, 'In the second act, Ms. Merman's part will be sung by John Wells,' and you hear this sort of groan. That's the image I went into it with."

Is the change in producers noticeable in tonight's season premiere? Only to the most discerning viewers. One emotional scene between President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his wife (Stockard Channing) feels more hollow than usual, and the Wells hallmark of introducing the family members of lead characters -- in this case, the oldest Bartlet daughter, Elizabeth (Annabeth Gish) -- is in the spotlight. But Wells said he won't go overboard with that.

"We are going to spend more time learning about the first family, not to the extent of more than an episode here and there," Wells said. "The truth is, the rest of them don't have a home life just because of the job requirements. A lot of people expressed a fear that that's where we would be heading, but that's not really what the show is."

Otherwise, tonight's episode is pretty much classic "West Wing," as Bartlet's staffers fret about the president's decision to transfer power to Speaker of the House Walken (John Goodman) after Bartlet's youngest daughter was kidnapped in May's season finale.

Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) defends the decision, saying it shows Bartlet is "a leader nobly embracing his flawed humanity." But Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) remains unconvinced. "Lincoln and Kennedy had children who died, they didn't take a sabbatical," Josh says.

Wells said he begged Sorkin, who wrote the May cliffhanger that set up this scenario, to return to write his way out of the story, but Sorkin declined.

"Aaron wrote the first two acts of a play and I had to write the last two acts of the play," Wells said. "When I actually got an opportunity to write it, it was a terrific head start. Aaron's instinct to have me do it was the right one. I had something to jump off of that was very strong."

One benefit of Wells' ascension to show runner is a tempering of the Republican characters, who are slightly less strident and more three-dimensional in this episode. Walken tells C.J. (Allison Janney) there are more issues that unite the two parties than divide them. Walken is also shown to have a sense of humor, declaring, "In case you boys haven't noticed, I'm one prime rib dinner away from sudden cardiac arrest. I don't want the secretary of agriculture being named as the next president of the United States."

Wells said viewers won't see the show's main characters suddenly swing right, but the majority view of the Republicans in Congress will be represented more often.

"Our characters aren't changing, but the world in which they live, because of a Republican-controlled Congress, forces them to have those conversations more and to hear those other points of view."

Despite another win for best drama at Sunday's Emmy Awards ceremony, ratings for "The West Wing" dropped precipitously last season. Wells sees it as a reaction to changes in the world since Sept. 11, 2001, and not because the show is seen in the light of a Republican Bush administration as opposed to the Clinton years that came before.

"In our audience's mind, something really has changed [in] the way we look at the world and politics and, probably, what we need from our political leaders," Wells said. "We want to address what that is without making the show too ponderous or earnest. We want to make certain we're feeling relevant to the audience."

'The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.'

Feeling relevant may also be a concern for David E. Kelley and CBS. After "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal," he was heralded as TV's Wunderkind. Then there was the short-lived series "Snoops," "Ally" ran off its rails and "Girls Club" lasted just two episodes.

Many critics complained that Kelley was forsaking smart character drama for cheap sensationalism. That charge is unlikely to diminish with "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H."

During a contentious family dinner, a teenage girl shouts, "I lost my virginity!"

It's not true; she just wanted to stop the hubbub and get attention. Kelley's latest series does the same thing. Scatological humor, sex talk and an obsession with Katie Couric substitute for anything substantial, character or storywise.

Viewers had every reason to look forward to "Brotherhood." The premise is inviting and the small-town setting harks back to the great "Picket Fences."

"Brotherhood" focuses on the Shaw brothers: Garrett (John Carroll Lynch), the town's mayor; Hank (Randy Quaid), the town's police chief; and Waylon (Chris Penn), an insecure, unemployed guy with a heart of gold.

In preparation for a job interview, Waylon wants his wife, Julie (Ann Cusack), to duct-tape his buttocks to make him look thinner and therefore less lazy.

"If I do this for you, you can forget about [oral sex] for the next three months," Julie says.

And we're off to the races.

Hank's wife, Dottie (Mare Winningham), is jealous because Hank has an obsession with Katie Couric, and Garrett is being blackmailed by a woman he had a brief affair with six years ago.

There are moments of pathos in "Brotherhood," but they're surrounded by crass and crude sensationalism. Dottie also wants to buy the town movie theater, but Hank objects. Her response: "What am I supposed to do, just shrivel up like a dried-up booger?"

Does anyone really talk that way? More importantly, would a character who claims to crave culture in her small town talk that way? Doubtful.

At a July press conference, Kelley contrasted "Brotherhood" with "Picket Fences," saying the latter was metaphorical and whimsical, and that the audience will be able to relate better to the former. He was inspired to create "Brotherhood" by his own trips back to New Hampshire for a high school reunion.

"What attracted me was the struggle for family survival that seems to be so prevalent today," Kelley said. "Also the struggle to maintain Main Street and small-town values in a world that's becoming increasingly more wired and global."

And unlike the waif-thin stars of most of his shows, Kelley conceived of the Shaw brothers as "40 and fat." He said Fox executives passed on it for their youth-skewing network as soon as they saw that description.

"We were not looking for leading young men. We wanted to find character actors, good actors, who really were more believable in winter towns where they tend to get heavier in the winter," Kelley said.

Kelley re-shot the "Brotherhood" pilot and recast several roles, but just last week he decided to scrap the pilot. What airs tonight is the second episode with a few scenes from the pilot inserted. Viewers may still feel a little like they're jumping into chapter two of a story, particularly when it comes to Dottie's unhappiness (she had a heartfelt explanatory scene in the pilot that's gone now).

In a letter to critics, Kelley said he made the decision because he realized the second episode was more representative of what "Brotherhood" will be on a weekly basis.

Even in July, Kelley acknowledged that the show's odds for success were not good.

"It's slower in pace. It's not a noisy show. It's not a show that you can come in on maybe the second or third act and immediately catch up to what's been going on before," he said. "It's also opposite 'Law & Order.' We are not deluding ourselves into thinking that this is going to be an easy success story. ... It will probably be a slow and difficult build for us."


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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