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David E. Kelley and His Influence


I’ve been watching a new ABC TV show called “The Deep End.” It airs locally at 8 PM Thursday nights. This is a great time slot in my opinion as it’s a lead-in to “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” at 9 and 10 PM respectively on the same network.

I just watched the Feb. 18 episode and I found myself wondering who produced the show. The reason I was hunting for the show’s producer was because it reminded me so much of a David E. Kelley legal drama like “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” Instead I found out it was produced by the same guy that produces “How I Met Your Mother,” a comedy.

Although Kelley’s name was not attached to the program, I believe his influence over the past decade of network TV shows had a lot of influence over the plots and tone of the show.

Kelley is the multi-Emmy winning writer and producer of such shows as “Chicago Hope,” “Picket Fences,” “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal,” “Boston Legal” and “Boston Public.” I have been a devotee of Kelley’s writing and political, tongue in cheek views for many years.

Alan Chartok of NPR radio made the statement that “Boston Legal” was the last show to raise controversial issues on network TV since “The Smothers Brothers” many years ago. In that same vein, I have found similar angst and writing styles on “The Deep End,” however in researching it on-line, I have found ABC TV intends to cancel the series, with the finale being Feb. 25. Once again, something I really like seems to have fallen by the wayside in favor of reality shows and science fiction dramas. With the exception of American Idol, I really don’t like the popular reality shows.

But back to Kelley’s impact on network TV, the short life span of “The Deep End” may be why Kelley doesn’t allow much of the writing to be done by others for his shows.

“Kelley has been criticized for not delegating. A ‘Picket Fences’ writer described his time on the show as "the most boring period of my life - you'd write a scene... [and Kelley would] rewrite it completely. Or he just cut you out completely - you learned nothing. Having a writing staff was a needless expense for the network." Kelley gradually became more comfortable bringing in writers for ideas and taking over writing responsibilities. Kelley described this as a natural evolution. According to Kelley:

“There's a period at the beginning of a series (when) you're doing most of the writing and then you go through another period where you have the ideas and you're assigning those stories and ideas to other people and hopefully they execute them. Then if you're lucky you get a staff where they come into the room with their own ideas and specific takes on how to execute them and they do.

Kelley structures his episodes with multiple storylines. An episode may include a self contained subplot plus other story arcs that either began in a previous episode or will continue subsequently - some will continue the entire season. The viewer is thereby rarely sure whether what appears as a simple incident will blossom into a major plot point.

Kelley seeds his plots with political and social "hot-button" issues but always keeps the entertainment value uppermost. As Kelley has said,

“You've got to honor your relationship with your audience - that they sit down because they want to be entertained. And that doesn't mean you can't provoke them and antagonize them and challenge them in the course of the entertainment as long as you keep the entertainment part of the equation alive.”

As of this writing, Kelley has a Fall 2010 project in the works tentatively called “Kindreds,” which NBC describes as a show which “follows a curmudgeonly ex-patent lawyer and his group of misfit associates as their lives come together to form an unconventional kind of law practice.” This sounds like vintage Kelley and I look forward to its premier. I’m glad to hear NBC greenlighted the pilot.

(By the way, I said I would report on my impressions of “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” this week. The on-screen rapport between Newman and Redford is magnificent. But I have to say that I’m not much of a western genre film person. My taste in TV and films tend towards romantic comedies and the kind of humor David E. Kelley brings to the table.)

About Kathryn Spira

Kathryn Spira, a native of Cleveland, OH who pursued an acting career in NYC and Los Angeles, now pursues freelance writing from Caroga Lake in Fulton County, New York. Previous columns may be accessed at her web site