The creator of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" owns prime time. How many cat fights, dwarf lawyers and middlebrow sermons can we take?

Published September 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

He was born in Maine, captained the Princeton hockey team and went straight from law school to a prestigious Boston law firm, but he found his true calling as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Now, he's the most prolific and honored writer-producer in TV, but he still clocks out every day at 6 p.m. to go home to the wife and kids. Jock, writer, family guy -- if David E. Kelley weren't real, John Irving would have made him up.

Last week, the 43-year-old Kelley became the first producer to win Emmy awards for best drama series (ABC's "The Practice") and best comedy series (Fox's "Ally McBeal") in the same telecast. Those latest Emmys take their place on Kelley's mantle beside the half-dozen others he previously won for "The Practice," "Picket Fences" and "L.A. Law." Next week, Kelley has two new series premiering (well, one and a half): the ABC private-eye comedy-drama "Snoops" and a series of "Ally McBeal" outtakes fashioned into a half-hour oddity called "Ally." Kelley also wrote this week's season opener of "Chicago Hope," the CBS medical series he created in 1994, abandoned and then revamped last May to save it from cancellation. Kelley's TV reputation -- no, his legacy -- is secure; even movie bombs like "Lake Placid" can't tarnish his halo.

By all accounts, Kelley is perfectionistic, yet humble, about his work. In Hollywood, a town not known for its heart, people absolutely love him. Did I mention that he's married to Michelle Pfeiffer? Or that, with his rugged, tousle-haired good looks, he could be the lost frickin' Kennedy? Kelley is golden, he's charmed; he's Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Wayne Gretzky rolled into one.

He is so overrated.

Full disclosure: I was rooting for "The Sopranos" to win the Emmy over "The Practice" and for "Everybody Loves Raymond" to win over "Ally McBeal." But this isn't sour grapes. I've been wrestling with my extremely mixed feelings about Kelley's work for a while now, wondering how a writer capable of something as wonderfully realized as the small-town parallel universe of "Picket Fences" could also give us something as staggeringly messed up as "Ally McBeal" (and wait until you see "Snoops"). Or how someone who created characters as subtly complicated as Helen Gamble, Eugene Young and Bobby Donnell on "The Practice" could repeatedly bash you over the head with heavy-handed sermonizing on "L.A. Law," "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope." Kelley has to be the most schizo writer on TV.

Kelley operates within a very narrow comfort zone. The ex-lawyer in him can't resist pushing ethical issues (the right to die, civil liberties vs. community safety) in viewers' faces in the most sensational way possible; in a horrible scene from an early "Chicago Hope" about euthanasia, the camera lingered on an anencephalic newborn (actually, a realistic-looking animatronic doll), born without most of its brain or the top of its skull. Gratuitous moments like that notwithstanding, the crowd-pleasing TV scribe in Kelley knows that voyeurism pays off, often veering into the sort of nasty freak-show comedy that gets viewers talking the next day: dwarf lawyers on "L.A. Law" and "Ally McBeal"; a man's fondness for a pet pig on "L.A. Law" and a pet frog on "Ally McBeal"; a pervert who breaks into people's homes to bathe in their tubs on "Picket Fences"; the dancing baby, co-ed bathroom and behind-the-knee G-spot on "Ally McBeal." The season opener of "Chicago Hope" (9 p.m. Sept. 23, CBS) centers on a priest whose penis was severed under mysterious circumstances. If you've never seen any of these shows, you might wonder, What's the difference between Kelley and Jerry Springer?

Well, a lot of Emmys. Obviously, Academy members (and viewers) love Kelley's erratic brand of blunt messages and dewy magic realism. Me, I've tried to give Kelley a chance, really I have. I've come to appreciate "Picket Fences" in cable reruns (9 a.m., weekdays, FX) for its sense of the miraculous in the most mundane of settings, and for its central theme of how communities and parents are torn between doing what's ethically and legally right and what makes them feel safe. But I still cringe, watching "Picket Fences," when Kelley goes into full-bore message mode, setting up thuddingly obvious "debates" about, say, religion vs. science or justice vs. revenge.

I don't know how "The Practice" has managed so far to escape Kelley's preachy and sensationalistic tendencies. He writes every episode, and the show has pushed its share of hot buttons, with story lines about lawsuits against tobacco companies and gun makers, about nannies accused of murder and Kevorkian-like assisted-suicide crusaders. The show has also featured such sideshow attractions as a severed head in a medical bag, a lawyer who barfs before every big court appearance and an erudite gay serial killer who keeps getting away with murder. But somehow, none of this seems freakish. "The Practice" is comparatively restrained, somber, realistic. Maybe Kelley identifies too strongly with his hard-working, conscience-stricken Boston lawyer characters (Dylan McDermott's Bobby Donnell in particular) to want to screw with them, "McBeal"-style. Still, I fear for where Kelley might take the show; it's just a mood swing away from dancing babies and Mini-Me, Esq.

And speaking of mood swings ... "Ally McBeal" has mutated from bogus feminist soap opera with comedic bits to strenuously surreal yuppie daydream with dramatic bits. Calista Flockhart's Ally has become a petulant, spectral presence on her own show, pushed to the sideline by an ever-expanding assortment of fabulous babes and by the schlubs-get-lucky antics of law partners Cage (Peter MacNicol) and Fish (Greg Germann). It's an interesting concept, a title figure who is central by her absence. But this isn't "Waiting for Godot." "Ally McBeal" is a silly train wreck of a show, all gimmick and no center, and the re-edited half-hour "Ally" may actually turn out to be more focused. Whether this focus will result in "That Girl, 2000" or "Men Behaving Badly II: The Cage and Fish Show" is unclear, but I'm hoping for the latter; at least those two horndogs are funny.

"Ally McBeal" is Kelley at his most undisciplined -- but then, the only way the show makes sense is in its lack of discipline. I don't know how anyone could mistake "Ally McBeal" for a "women's show" -- it's purely a freewheeling, male workplace fantasy. I mean, the show is all about women physically fighting each other: mud wrestling, boxing, cat fights, Ally tackling another woman in a supermarket over the last bag of potato chips on the shelf. And, of course, there was that episode last season where Ally, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith), Nelle (Portia de Rossi) and Ling (Lucy Liu) piled on one another in a bitch-slapping, hair-pulling, mini-skirts-hiked-up-to-the-waist bathroom brawl, while Cage and Fish watched open-mouthed, looking like doofuses who thought they'd died and gone to heaven.

It's a little frightening how sadistic Kelley can be toward his characters, especially his women. During his tenure as executive producer and writer of "L.A. Law," a character named Rosalind Shays (played by Diana Muldaur) was introduced as the show's first real female authority figure. Rosalind was a coolly composed older woman who was brought into the McKenzie, Brackman firm as a rainmaker. She was quickly established to be as ambitious and ruthless as her male colleagues. The women at the firm hated her and called her a bitch behind her back. Viewer interest in the show, which had been flagging, picked up again; it seemed that America wanted another Joan Collins-type villain to love/hate, and Kelley and his writers complied. What started out as a provocative look at double standards in the workplace degenerated into a humiliate-the-bitch derby, until Rosalind was dispatched in a fatal elevator-shaft accident that, a year later, was still being squeezed for "splat" jokes.

And while Camryn Manheim may have saved Kelley's ass on "The Practice" by fighting for the dignity of her character, fat women in other Kelley scripts have not fared so well. There was an episode of "Picket Fences" where a fat woman killed her husband by sitting on him. On "Ally McBeal" last season, a sad, self-conscious fat woman brought (and lost) a lawsuit against her boss for instituting a "beach Friday" policy where everyone was encouraged to come to work in a bathing suit.

Watching "The Practice," though, you could almost believe that Kelley is getting over it. The female lawyers are a contentious bunch, but, remarkably, there's been a minimum of bitch-slapping. Bobby has slept with both law partner Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) and prosecutor Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle), but Lindsay and Helen remain best friends and roomies. The Rosalind Shays figure on the show, Judge Roberta Kittelson (Emmy winner Holland Taylor), however, is a problem. She's an older woman with a healthy sexual appetite -- so why does she also have to be so hot for Bobby that she jeopardizes her career by coming on to him and psychotically scratches Lindsay's face out of photographs?

And then there's "Snoops." Drooling voyeurism, gorgeous female co-workers in sexy outfits circling each other in a constant state of impending cat fight, the cruel ridicule of a fat woman -- yes, Kelley has gone over to the dark side again. Set in a gleaming, high-tech private investigation firm staffed by one tough babe (Gina Gershon), one high-strung girly-girl (Paula Marshall) and one obligatory nosy receptionist with attitude (Paula Jai Parker), "Snoops" is a vacuous piece of fluff, tricked out with sleek surveillance hardware, bright neon, a high-octane soundtrack and pointlessly fancy camerawork. Danny Nucci as Manny, a car-crazy investigator, seems to have wandered in from an audition for "Grease." Not even scenery-chewing guest bad guy John Glover in high dudgeon can save this dog from the pound. "Snoops" feels like a contractual obligation; it's eerily reminiscent of the Jim Belushi private eye show "Total Security," which Kelley mentor Steven Bochco had the nerve (or desperation) to foist on viewers a few seasons ago, and it should last about as long. Kelley has proven that he can write like a lawyer, a showman and an honest-to-God literary genius. On "Snoops," he writes like a hockey player.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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