Scribe a safe bet for studios

“Snoops,” the latest drama from David E. Kelley, won’t debut until the fall. But since Kelley’s track record is so consistent, it’s possible to confidently make a few predictions even without having seeing the show.

First, the bad news. The odds are that ABC does not have a top-five or even a top-10 show on its hands. After all, the other creations from this prolific wordsmith — “Picket Fences,” “Chicago Hope,” “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal” — haven’t seen those lofty ratings peaks.

Most of the news, however, is good. The show will not bomb.

Unlike TV’s other great showmakers, from Norman Lear to Steven Bochco, Kelley has never produced an out-and-out flop. And “Snoops” will likely capture the kinds of viewers advertisers covet while garnering oodles of critical acclaim and countless awards for breaking down TV’s tired conventions.

In fact, Kelley’s body of work has been so stellar, it has just earned him another honor: This week, he receives the Banff Television Festival’s 1999 Astral Award of Excellence.

“David represents quality rather than simply big ratings,” says Banff festival chieftain Pat Ferns. “And his shows do well internationally, so he’s speaking to something universal in human condition.”

“Ally,” with its dancing baby and other fantastical elements, is Kelley’s most daring show, truly breaking television’s drama-comedy genres. “He took a whole pile of risks and held it together,” Ferns says.

The show also has been an overwhelming demographic success with young women and a major buzz generator for Fox. “He has really tapped into the cultural zeitgeist,” says Jeffrey Kramer, president of David E. Kelley Prods.

All in all, it’s a fairly impressive achievement for someone who fell into his television career by accident.

Kelley never paid any attention to creative writing in his youth, focusing all his energies instead on becoming a lawyer. Born and raised in small-town New England, Kelley attended Princeton (where he captained the hockey team) and then Boston University School of Law in 1983.

But as one of 50 attorneys in the Boston firm of Fine & Ambrogne, Kelley quickly grew bored with the routine drudgery of minor criminal cases and real estate transactions. On a lark, he spent his spare time writing a film called “From the Hip.” And while he disliked the film that was made (starring Judd Nelson), it launched his career after the script caught Steven Bochco’s eye.

In 1986, Bochco brought Kelley on to be a writer and editor for his new show, “L.A. Law.” Uncertain of his future, Kelley took a leave of absence from his firm, retaining an office there for a year. Kelley flourished under Bochco, his teacher and mentor.

He quickly ascended to co-producer, supervising producer and finally in 1990 to executive producer when Bochco left. But in interviews he still spoke of chucking this TV thing and returning to law.

It was obvious to everyone else, however, that Kelley was becoming a Hollywood fixture: He wrote or co-wrote 18 of 22 episodes of “Law” during his first season as executive producer, leaving others to oversee production and casting, a habit he continues today.

Since taking over as exec producer for “Law,” his shows have won five drama Emmys, as well as writing kudos. This year he pulled off an unheard-of sweep, winning the Golden Globes awards for drama (“The Practice”) and comedy (“Ally”)

Kelley, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has always said he prefers to speak through his writing. That writing is old-fashioned in two ways: Kelley writes longhand on yellow legal pads, and his shows rely heavily on nuanced character development more reminiscent of playwrights than many television scribes. “He’s very funny in person, and he loves practical jokes,” says Kramer, “but in his writing he’s never jokey. The humor comes from the characters.”

Additionally, Kramer says, “There is a moral fiber that goes through his work. David has a unique ability to show two sides of an issue, then twist it dramatically.”

This trait was most evident on “Picket Fences,” which mixed whimsy and surrealism with such high-profile social issues as euthanasia and race. “Fences” also touched more on religious and ethical issues than most shows, dealing with Christian Scientists who need medical intervention and the idea of creationism in schools, among other topics.

But “The Practice” and even “Ally” deal with legal issues and the role of television and the media in society in ways other shows rarely dare. Ally has a black boyfriend but the show never raises the issue of race, a striking bit of idealism that has won Kelley both praise and condemnation.

“Kelley doesn’t talk down to his audiences,” Kramer says. “And his characters are real at their core. They often go three steps forward and two steps back.”

And for all the awards his shows have earned Kelley, too, has encountered those bumps in the road and vulnerable moments that make his characters so memorable.

For starters, Kelley’s shows often have been given bad timeslots by the networks. “So much of ratings success depends on where you’re scheduled,” says Ferns.

“Fences” was buried on Friday nights, while “The Practice” initially suffered on Saturdays at 10 p.m. “Hope” got tossed to the wolves in a different way when it debuted head-to-head with “ER” and NBC’s Thursday night juggernaut. “Hope” soon was moved to CBS’s then-prized Monday at 10 p.m. timeslot.

And Kelley did not fare as well on the bigscreen, where his first feature, “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday,” did poorly. However, he has two more movies, “Mystery, Alaska” and “Lake Placid,” coming up.

Additionally, when “Fences” and “Hope” started, Kelley performed the nearly impossible feat of cranking out 40 scripts in one season for the two shows.

Despite the workload, Kramer says, “I’ve never ever seen him lose it. He has a reasonable, rational approach to everything.”

Unfortunately, some of the shows’ other writers complained and even quit because Kelley was so intensely focused that they were left out of the process. Burned out, Kelley pulled back by season’s end, writing only occasionally for the shows.

Not that Kelley, who married Michelle Pfeiffer in 1993 and usually goes home to her and their two children by 6:30 p.m., could stay away long. He has once again shown his ferocious diligence, writing nearly every episode of both shows.

And, with CBS threatening to cancel “Chicago Hope,” which has of late seemed unfocused and too soapy for many observers, Kelley agreed to return as an active consultant to save the show.

All of which leads back to “Snoops,” and one more prediction: No matter how long the show lasts on ABC, it won’t be the only place Kelley’s fans can get their weekly dose of TV’s leading auteur.

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