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Kelley's kingdom

TV's reigning producer pulls the strings for 'The Practice' and 'Ally McBeal

Sunday, February 07, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post- Gazette TV Editor

LOS ANGELES -- David E. Kelley is god.

Not the God, but Kelley is a god among TV producers and the center of a self-created TV universe.

Portrait of "The Practice": from left, Dylan McDermott (seated), Kelli Williams, Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim, Michael Badalucco, Lara Flynn Boyle, Marla Sokoloff and LisaGay Hamilton. (Len Hekel photo) 

In a recent panel discussion of ABC's "The Practice," Kelley was seated precisely at the center with five actors and producers flanking him on each side.

At the Emmy awards in September, Kelley's "The Practice," an underdog if ever there was one, took home a best drama series statue. Two weeks ago at the Golden Globes, Kelley did it again, but this time he got two awards: one for "The Practice" as best drama and one for Fox's "Ally McBeal" as best comedy series.

Even Steven Bochco, the reigning king of quality prime-time dramas, can't compete with that.

Mr. Kelley, the throne is yours.

What is it about Kelley's shows that have made him a TV wunderkind?

    More articles on

'The Practice'

Behind the scenes of 'The Practice'

Some Kelly characters have a lot in common


Early on one could point to his "he's got it all" marriage to actress Michelle Pfeiffer as a reason for his celebrity producer status. But with four critically acclaimed, multiple-season shows to his credit, Kelley has proved his mettle. He's no one-hit wonder like Diane English ("Murphy Brown").

While media hype drives the gallons of ink spilled over low-rated shows such as "thirtysomething" and "South Park," Kelley's current two series, both of which debuted in 1997, are actually attracting viewers. "The Practice" is not yet a Top 10 show ("Ally" landed in the Top 10 for the first time last month), but both Kelley series have improved in the Nielsen ratings. Compared to a year ago, "Ally's" ratings are up 46 percent and "The Practice" is up 37 percent, the two biggest prime-time network gainers, according to a December issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Kelley writes almost all the scripts for "Ally" and most for "The Practice" - in longhand, no less.

"I guess I'm lucky to be fast," Kelley said after a news conference with TV critics last month. "When I'm breaking a story, I break it best while writing. I start with a general outline, but I don't discover the true meat of the story until I'm writing."

Kelley rivals only "Babylon 5" executive producer J. Michael Straczynski for productivity (JMS wrote 92 of 110 episodes of "B5," which aired for five seasons), but Kelley's time on the job isn't that arduous (9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days). Kelley spends about four or five days on a script for each show, but strives to keep the two programs separate.

"I never split days. When I'm in one world, the other doesn't exist," Kelley said. "If I'm writing an episode of 'The Practice' and you come in and ask me about a scene on 'Ally,' you might as well tap into the Internet and ask someone who's watching for their opinion."

In college, Kelley wrote term papers the night before they were due and crammed for tests. He doesn't recommend it as a good way to be educated, but it's become his approach to writing.

"The scripts I throw out and start over are usually the ones at the beginning of the year that I have a longer time to write," Kelley said. "Without the adrenaline of the deadline, it shows in the script and it's just a little flabby. In the middle of the season when the deadlines come faster and faster, it works better with my rhythm."

Sometimes he outlines an episode's plot and assigns the script to another writer, but frequently Kelley ends up rewriting it.

"The writer will say, 'Gee, you went left and you asked me to go right and if you asked me to go left I could have done that,' " Kelley said. "My frustrating answer to the writer is that I didn't know I was going to go left until I got inside the four walls and let the characters talk."

Writing for "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope" at the same time proved difficult, but Kelley doesn't have the same trouble with "Ally" and "The Practice."

"Writing these two shows works for me, I think because the worlds are so different," he said. "By the time I come back to write the other series, it feels like I've been away longer than I really have."

"The Practice" (airing Sunday nights at 10 on ABC) is more of a straight-ahead law show with a cast that looks more like real people than TV stars; "Ally McBeal" (airing Monday nights at 9 on Fox) is a comedy with fantasy elements and a cast of beautiful people.

Robert Thompson, director of the Syracuse University Center for the Study of Popular Television, said a simplistic explanation for Kelley's success with these two shows is that he broke "L.A. Law" - for which he twice was an Emmy-winning writer - in half.

"He took the A stories from 'L.A. Law' and the B stories from 'L.A. Law' and gave each its own show," Thompson said. "The deep, probing things 'The Practice' does exclusively, and the funny characters as comic relief stories go to 'Ally McBeal.' "

Brandon Hyde, a former TV executive in Dallas who now operates a marketing company, said Kelley successfully crosses genre lines, bringing comedy to drama in "Picket Fences" and "The Practice" and drama to comedy in "Ally McBeal."

"He was the first one to do that, at least on a serial basis," Hyde said. "If you're flipping through channels with a remote control, it's easy to identify his signature on these shows. His characters make the shows compelling and gives us something to look forward to. As an audience we're becoming more narratively sophisticated and we need that additional boost to keep us watching."

Boston College communications professor Marilyn Matelski also attributes Kelley's success to his writing and the characters he creates.

"They're kind of offbeat. They're not airbrushed," Matelski said. "There's an eccentric quality to them, but still a real quality."

A change in the script

Kelley didn't aspire to be a TV writer. After graduating from Princeton in 1979, he earned a law degree from the Boston University School of Law in 1983 and practiced law for three years before getting his break in TV.

  Crossing between two universes

Both "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" inhabit the same David E. Kelley-created universe. The characters from "Ally" have visited "The Practice" and vice versa. But there's a consistency to the two programs that goes beyond throwaway lines and sharing Boston as a setting.

" 'Ally' and 'The Practice' are one incredibly brilliant show that couldn't be contained in a single series," said Syracuse University TV professor Robert Thompson. "They're being told simultaneously on two different networks at two different times."

Even as the characters from the two shows have crossed over and appeared on each other's shows, a recent "Ally" found Renee watching an episode of "The Practice."

"We almost didn't do that, because it's extremely incongruous," Kelley said. If we're going to say these worlds actually live next to each other, then one shouldn't be watching the other on TV. But we felt it was innocuous enough it wouldn't really break the fourth wall."

Other crossovers:

The judge character played by Dyan Cannon primarily on "Ally" also has been seen on "The Practice."

In an episode of "The Practice" that aired just before Christmas, Lucy wore mistletoe headgear she said was created by her friend, Elaine. Clearly that was intended to be Ally's secretary, Elaine, who continuously invents weird things.

Actor Michael Easton appeared as Glenn, the well-endowed model in Ally's sculpting class, and later turned up as one of Helen Gamble's dates on "The Practice." Even though viewers never heard him addressed by name on ABC's "The Practice" (because Fox owns the character), Kelley said in his mind Easton was playing Glenn.

- Rob Owen


In person, he comes across as a gentle, quiet sort. It's clear from his scripts there's a lot going through his mind, but he's not expressive. He'd be a challenging opponent in a game of poker, but Kelley is known for an interest in cribbage.

Tall with unruly hair, Kelley doesn't look much like the stereotypical Hollywood producer. He's more down-to-earth, almost a little schlubby, as if he's more comfortable in jeans than a shirt and tie. There's charm in his sly sense of humor. It's not surprising Kelley identifies with the soul of two of his characters, dreamers Ally McBeal and John Cage.

His father, Jack Kelley, worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1991 to 1997, including a stint as the team's president. So it should come as no surprise that his son wrote a movie about a hockey coach - "Mystery, Alaska" - that will be released in April.

In 1986, Kelley landed his first TV job on the Steven Bochco series "L.A. Law," but Kelley quickly put his own imprint on the show. It was Kelley who sent the prickly Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur) spiraling down an elevator shaft in March 1991. With Bochco he co-created ABC's "Doogie Howser, M.D.," precursor to "Ally" since it focused on the emotional inner life of a single character rather than an ensemble.

The first series with Kelley's stamp of authorship - and his alone - was "Picket Fences" in 1992. Set in a small town in Wisconsin, the CBS drama was a predecessor to the "Ally" sensibility, mixing character comedy, issues of law and ethics and high drama. It also was Kelley's attempt to dabble in every genre imaginable.

"Picket Fences" starred Tom Skerritt as the town sheriff (cop show), Kathy Baker as his doctor wife (medical show), Ray Walston as a judge (law show), Leigh Taylor-Young as the mayor (political show) and Roy Dotrice as a priest (religion and ethics show).

The proof of Kelley's importance to the shows he creates can be found in the creative collapse once he leaves a series. Kelley ran and wrote most of "Picket Fences" its first three seasons (it won the Emmy for best drama series it first two seasons on the air), but he turned it over to other writers and executive producers in its fourth year and the show fell apart. Viewers, who never watched "Picket Fences" on Friday nights in huge numbers to begin with, abandoned the show, and it was canceled.

Kelley created "Chicago Hope" for CBS in 1994 and wrote for it during the first season. When he left the medical drama, it changed from a quirky dramatic exploration of characters and issues to a standard melodrama. The first season of "Chicago Hope" had the Kelley imprint, but the series can no longer be considered a DEK show even though Kelley is still in the credits as an executive consultant.

Most ensemble sitcoms and dramas are written by a staff of writers, but Kelley's shows click because they come from his singular vision. There's a consistency in the plot and characters that may be unparalleled.

"If there's anything I do that's different from other producers, I tend to write most of the episodes, so it's not scripts by committee," Kelley said. "But it's not an easy thing to do, and it's not something I'm always in favor of. Because television, unlike a movie or a play, is a marathon. And for it to live, in at least television perpetuity, you've got to write 100 episodes or so, and manpower helps."

Kelley hasn't come up with an answer for why he doesn't do it that way. Perhaps it's a control thing. Maybe he knows the characters so well he's loath to let anyone else play in his sandbox. Whatever the reason for his ability to churn out a remarkable number of quality scripts, Kelley's rabid writing may account for his success.

By writing the majority of the episodes for both shows, Thompson said Kelley has found a way to stretch the boundaries of the medium.

"What's so extraordinary about this is that it isn't the way the industry works," Thompson said in a phone interview. "Maybe TV would be better if it could work this way more often and express the vision of a single artist. Is David Kelley the unique individual who has the ability to pull this off, or is the medium more amenable to this way of doing business? I think it's closer to the former than the latter."

Actress Camryn Manheim, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for her role on "The Practice," said Kelley's writing is a gift for any actor.

"I come from the theater, and a lot of plays aren't written as well as David Kelley's scripts are," she said. "I read a lot of movie scripts and they don't even compare to David Kelley's writing. It's not hard for me to appreciate what a genius he is."

A word from our writer ...

Because Kelley is the only one writing for "Ally," he's able to have a dialogue with the audience. He responds to the media's reaction to the show in a way no other TV show producer has.

TV Listings

This fall all the talk was about Calista Flockhart's weight loss; last season it was whether Ally McBeal is a feminist icon. Kelley let his characters do the talking. In an episode of "Ally McBeal" late last year, "The Practice's" equally thin Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle) ran into Ally and suggested she "eat a cookie." Ally replied, "Maybe we could share one."

"That little crossover stunt was probably just a comment from us that we do think it's kind of overblown and silly," Kelley said. "The public and the media sometimes try to seize onto stories and make stories that aren't there sometimes."

Just a few weeks ago, Ally had a dream that she was on the cover of Time magazine as "the new face of feminism" (Flockhart was on the cover under a similar headline last summer). Ally also dreamed she was accosted by the executive vice president of Women for Progress who insisted Ally was a role model. Ally protested she wasn't, but the woman would not relent.

"Well, that's very sweet, but I'm afraid you really have no choice," she said. "We are going to have to make some adjustments in the way you dress and I'd like to fatten you up a little. We do not want young girls glamorizing that thin thing."

Perhaps it's sour grapes on Kelley's part (he dissed Entertainment Weekly in an "Ally" episode after its critics consistently gave Kelley shows bad reviews), but it's a new way for a creator to respond to his audience. On "Moonlighting," the characters sometimes broke through the fourth wall and directly addressed the audience. Steven Bochco and Tom Fontana have both dropped inside jokes into their series as well, but those were understood by few, Thompson said. Kelley's messages are clear to the masses.

"It's one psyche responding to what's all around them," Thompson said. "It's that kind of direct response to critics, that direct melding of the real world with the fictional world that goes on in that show. It manages to be so surrealistic."

In the TV world, writers rule, but in movies the director calls the shots. This may explain Kelley's reluctance to move any further into the motion picture arena. Kelley adapted the play "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" for the 1996 movie (Pfeiffer played Gillian) and has two films scheduled for release in 1999: "Mystery, Alaska" and "Lake Placid" (a rampaging crocodile tale).

"I much prefer doing television," Kelley said. "You lose control [with movies], and it's so protracted. So many other factors go into it that it stalls the momentum. I just didn't enjoy it that much. My attention span isn't cut out for it."

How long audiences embrace Kelley's quirky style of TV remains to be seen. Kelley himself has said he can't imagine "Ally" running longer than five years, and Thompson agrees "The Practice" could have a longer life.

"It is such a conservative, old-fashioned lawyer show," Thompson said. "What distinguishes it are really great stories and characters being drawn out in more complex ways over time. It's not so much developing relationships as it is getting to know them."

With "Ally," Kelley pushes the constraints of the medium in a way most sitcoms wouldn't even dare. Bells ring, characters spontaneously break into song and dance and special effect-generated frogs and babies abound.

"The sitcom format really proscribes what you can and cannot do," Thompson said. "In many ways the sitcom is close to vaudeville, but this is a sophisticated electronic medium, and finally someone is beginning to realize what the possibilities are."

Kelley is able to explore "the whole unclear, vague nature of human relationships in the late 1990s and give them a language," Thompson said. Just as "Seinfeld" talked about masturbation ("master of my domain") without being clinical or gross and sophomoric, Kelley has created a post-politically correct universe that's unapologetic. Richard Fish, the law firm's senior partner on "Ally McBeal," cracks jokes that could be deemed horribly offensive, but Kelley simply concocted the catch-all phrase "bygones" as a salve to heal any and all wounds.

Thompson pointed out the recent "Ally" scene where Ling erotically licked Richard's finger. "That oral digital sex scene showed there are so many other frontiers for sex besides intercourse, and none of this has been flown up the flagpole before."

Kelley's actors find his words challenging, too. This season on "The Practice" Lindsay (Kelli Williams) has taken to saying "Bite me" and throwing books at her colleagues.

"My theory is she's tried to explain herself to people over and over again, and no one listens," Williams said. "So she finally resorts to 'Bite me' because it's simpler and more succinct."

Three is not enough

For most TV producers, other than Aaron Spelling, it would be enough to have three series on the air simultaneously. Kelley is about to add another. He's developing "Snoops," about an office of private detectives in Los Angeles, for ABC's fall schedule. Kelley said he won't spread himself too thin.

"One of the things that factored into developing 'Snoops' was creating a show that other people could come in and write and run, though I will definitely be involved should it be so lucky as to make it on the air," Kelley said. "My primary involvement will still be 'The Practice' and 'Ally.' "

That cheer you just heard was from the stars of those two shows.

"He's the creative force behind this thing," said Michael Badalucco of "The Practice." "He's the stirrer that stirs the drink."

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