There is no surer sign that David E. Kelley has seized the crown as the TV production community’s undisputed king than the fact that many pilots and series are now described as being made in the “David Kelley style.”
Not only is Kelley the heir to the creative primetime tradition long dominated by Steven Bochco, but his shows resonate in an offbeat way that feels wholly unprecedented. It was true of his writing and production work on “L.A. Law” and on “Picket Fences,” and it remains consistent in “Chicago Hope,” in his edgy legal drama “The Practice” and surely in the sprightly “Ally McBeal.”
What has helped Kelley soar is a knack for character development that he hones almost daily on hourlong episodic scripts that he is said to pound out in two days. Having a show emerge from the brain of a single human has to bolster a series’ clarity of focus.
Nothing seems able to impede the Kelley freight train. Not the chronic cast turnover on “Chicago Hope.” Not the early banishment to Saturday-night Siberia for “The Practice.” Not using a little-known actress named Calista Flockhart in the lead role on “Ally McBeal.”
And to be sure, Kelley — a former attorney himself — knows the lawyer mindset. He sees it as alternately strong, neurotic, angst-riddled, self-absorbed, sometimes morally ambivalent and positively dripping with eccentricity. They have lively fantasies. They have mountains of tenacity and chutzpah. And let’s face it: Most of them are certifiable nut cases. It just seems to go with the territory.
Interestingly, Kelley’s doctors on “Chicago Hope” have much in common with his lawyers: crusading, narcissistic, passionate, zealous, combative and often looney as all get-out. These are people who are as comfortable playing God as they are ice hockey. But they care. Oh, do they care. If your appendix were ever to burst, Chicago Hope is the place you would want the ambulance to drive you.
The genius of Kelley is that his well of vivid characters never appears to run dry. His shows are endlessly able to rejuvenate themselves, at least in part because they are so unafraid to appear preposterous. Before Kelley arrived, doctors were rarely this deep. Lawyers were almost never this interesting. And network primetime seemed to be woefully bereft of spirit and spunk.