David E. Kelley is talking up “The Practice” and the clock, as always, is ticking.
Leisurely chit-chat, especially from the big guy himself, is a rarity at the Raleigh Studios lot in scenic Manhattan Beach. A scheduled interview had been pushed back as Kelley was in the midst of penning yet another script, though its unclear whether it was for freshman show “Boston Public,” “Ally McBeal” or “The Practice,” which will air its 100th episode Sunday. Writing and/or overseeing 67 episodes a season has a way of creating time constraints.
So when Kelley gets on a roll, still scribbling with pen on a yellow legal pad, it’s best to wait until his creative juices have run their course so he can direct his attention elsewhere.
Kelley is addicted to keeping himself busy. In 1997, he had completed two Emmy-winning courtroom dramas — “L.A. Law” and “Picket Fences,” which also focused on the police department in the quirky town of Rome, Wisc. — and remained involved in the CBS medical drama “Chicago Hope.” Nevertheless, Kelley decided to launch another courtroom drama, this time one that focused on the minutiae of practicing law.
“With ‘L.A. Law’ we were doing big stories and presenting a glamorized version of the law and even back then it was gestating in me to do a series that was a little less glamorous and focused on the smaller details and interesting ethical challenges that lawyers were faced with on a day-to-day basis. Some of the ugly stuff that’s not so much fun to do, like collecting fees,” Kelley recalls.
“It was based on my exposure to it as an attorney but none of it is it really based on my experiences. I was in a pretty protected firm and I didn’t have to get my fingernails dirty like a lot of the lawyers did on ‘The Practice’ in the early years.”
During those early years, Kelley was forced to reconfigure the show when ABC offered him a Saturday night timeslot, following a six-week run in the 10 p.m. Tuesday “NYPD Blue” spot. “Picket Fences” had always been a critical darling but never caught on with audiences, so Kelley was rightfully concerned about making “The Practice” Nielsen friendly.
“Specifically, it was not going to be a series about murder cases and big trials every week,” Kelley explains. “We went through various battles to get on the air and we eventually (landed) on Saturday night, which was considered — at that time — pretty much a death spot.”
Kelley sees the Saturday night aud as one that’s not committed to watching primetime television.
“It’s a different animal writing a Saturday night show. You’re constituency is not going to be habitual at all,” Kelly says. “People are out of their home on a Saturday night or they’re at the movies or they’re at dinner and a lot of the people who flip on the television are doing just that. They may have never seen your show before and you can’t count on to your audience to be there week in and week out. So I felt constrained with respect to doing continuing storylines.”What also made “The Practice” different from many previous courtroom dramas that focus on defense attorneys is that the show isn’t afraid to paint the firm’s clients as the dregs of society.
Sure, there are the occasional cases where the firm of Donnell, Young, Dole and Frutt are fighting against Big Tobacco or a duplicitous governmental agency, but mostly it’s defending accused serial killers, murderers, rapists and folks that are only a guilty verdict away from a frequently well-deserved lifetime in prison.
“One of the most fundamental questions people have about defense attorneys is, ‘How can you do that? How can you go to bat everyday for a person that you may not know is guilty but you have a pretty good idea that he’s not so innocent,” Kelley says. “It’s a question that defense attorneys answer for themselves by not addressing. They keep in check a state’s power to incarcerate at will without reasonable doubt.
“It’s a very good tentpole to attach yourself to and it’s an important one in our judicial system but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re human. Like everyone else at the end of the day, when they’re brushing their teeth and looking into a mirror, they have to ask themselves, ‘Can they reconcile their humanity with their job?’ ”
Last year was not the best of the times for Kelley. “The Practice,” a two-time Emmy winner for best drama, was considered an afterthought by many critics caught up in the frenzy over “The Sopranos” and “The West Wing”; “Ally McBeal” was losing some fans with plotlines that were even more bizarre than the first couple of seasons; a half-hour, syndication-friendly “Ally” was shelved quickly by Fox; and “Snoops,” a detective show that Kelley admitted he wasn’t passionate about, was canceled by ABC.
This year, Kelley is on the rebound. “The Practice” is consistently in the top 10, “Ally” has received both better Nielsen numbers and critical applause — largely thanks to the addition of Robert Downey Jr. to the cast — and Kelley has another bona fide hit with “Boston Public.”
But such is the cyclical nature of television. With “The Practice” entering year six in the fall (assuming at some point, labor strike permitting, the season will start), Kelley says he has “many more stories to tell” and will continue to focus on the law rather than move more towards the characters’ personal lives.
Ultimately, the workaholic Kelley is grateful for the opportunity to stay frenetically busy and is proud of what he and everyone associated with “The Practice” have accomplished.
“I guess what’s most gratifying to me, and maybe the most gratifying of any show I’ve ever done, is that we started at such desperation, even though that might not be the right word,” Kelley says. “I remember an article in the L.A. Times saying we were canceled when we were lifted after six episodes. The writing on the wall for everyone was that we we’re canceled. There was that feeling of doom that we weren’t going to be around for a long time, but in the wake of that, the crew and actors came to work every day with the same degree of professionalism that they have now as a top-10 show.
“You always hear the adages, ‘If you work hard you can overcome big odds’ and sooner or later someone asks for an example, so it’s nice to have one on the lot. To be able to point at that stage and remember that in the face of great odds against it, everyone really cared about the work and took pride in what they did everyday. It eventually paid off.”