There were two waves of reaction unleashed by Wednesday's news that Adrianne Palicki had won the lead role in NBC's "Wonder Woman" pilot. One was the excitement over the bigtime casting of an exciting young talent whose best work (on "Friday Night Lights") has gone unseen by the masses.
The other was, David E. Kelley is really doing "Wonder Woman?" David E. Kelley? Really?
Kelley's involvement with the project is months-old news, but it seemed to really crystalize following the Palicki announcement, with several writers reacting … not in a good way. Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com went there hard:
… whatever enthusiasm I have about the casting immediately goes out the window considering that this isn't just any "Wonder Woman" reboot, but a David E. Kelley reboot, when Kelley is absolutely the last writer in the business I would want to see anywhere near this character.
It's not just that Kelley's fondness for wackiness and jarring tonal shifts will surely undercut any attempt to treat the character even vaguely seriously. It's not just that the character and her world don't seem to provide much room for his biggest skill, which is writing flowery courtroom speeches. It's not just that he hasn't written a believably three-dimensional human character since the early days of "The Practice."
It's that Kelley can't write women, at all. He's the man whose "Ally McBeal" inspired an infamous Time magazine cover asking if feminism was dead – and even that show's early fans couldn't defend its depiction of women as neurotic messes by the time it wrapped. He's the man responsible for "girls club," a show about three sexy young female attorneys that actually made "Ally McBeal" seem like it had been written by Gloria Steinem. The women on his shows either start out as caricatures or descend into caricature rapidly, and are rarely granted the dignity that he gives even his goofiest male characters.
Kelley has something of a success right now in "Harry's Law" (though it's mainly a success by the terrible standards of NBC in the aftermath of the Jeff Zucker regime laid waste to the network), which does have a female lead in Kathy Bates. But the role was, as the title suggests, written for a man, and very little of it seems to have been tweaked to be about Bates' gender – where Wonder Woman, as ambassador for a nation of women, is a character who is about gender 24/7.
Simply put, a David E. Kelley-written Wonder Woman is going to be a complete embarrassment, even with somebody like Palicki in the title role …
But Sepinwall wasn't the only one.
"It strikes me as strange that the network would want Kelley's take on this character," Mo Ryan of TV Squad wrote. "Why not hire one of the many TV writers in Hollywood who grew up reading graphic novels and watching various female heroines kick butt on the small screen? Why not recruit someone with a passion for this character and this genre, not a well-known producer who's had a lot of success with a series of legal shows?"
Said James Poniewozik of Time: "David E. Kelley creating a plausible woman lead? I could not conceive a worse match of writer and subject if I were writing an Onion headline."
Most blunt of all was Kate Aurthur of the Daily Beast on Twitter: "Anyone excited that Adrianne Palicki has been cast as Wonder Woman must hate Adrianne Palicki. Not on my worst enemy would I wish that role!"
To be sure, there were some who had jumped on the Anyone but Kelley Bandwagon before Wednesday's casting news. At the Daily Beast, Jace Lacob wrote about a December version of the pilot script, calling it "laughably bizarre." Undoubtedly, pages have been revised since then, but Lacob's article, now widely linked to, has done little to assuage concerns about Kelley.
It's at this point where I usually come in to preach patience, saying that we stand to gain absolutely nothing from judging the pilot before it's actually completed, because there will be plenty of time to react after it's screened. For example, I've made it a pet project to ask baseball fans not to condemn the upcoming "Moneyball" movie before they've at least seen it. But I have to admit, my first reaction as I thought about Kelley doing "Wonder Woman" was, only half-jokingly, whether someone caught in the lasso of truth would launch into a five-minute polemic about legal injustices.
At various times, I've greatly enjoyed Kelley's "Picket Fences," "Ally McBeal," "Chicago Hope" and "The Practice," so I don't come in with a predisposition to dislike the guy (who, of course, is more successful in his career than I'll ever be in mine). My mind is completely open to the possibility that the naysayers could be wrong. But I can certainly understand the concern of those who feel he's simply the wrong person for the job, and the impulse to try to tell the Peacock to be wary of indulging too many of his writerly eccentricities.
Given that its "Bionic Woman" remake didn't make it through a full year and that its "Rockford Files" reboot never made it out of pilot season, however, NBC is probably wary about "Wonder Woman" in its own way. In any case, the Palicki-Kelley yin-yang figures to be one of the most-watched stories of Pilot Season 2011.