Film Studies: He invented Ally McBeal, and he's a genius

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The Independent Culture
Two weeks ago, David E Kelley won Emmys (American television's "Oscars") for the year's outstanding comic series - Ally McBeal - and outstanding drama - The Practice. This had never been done before, but you have to believe that it will be done again. Kelley will do it. He is only 40.

What he does is this, and he has done it so far for two other series - Picket Fences and Chicago Hope. He thinks of the idea - he writes what is called "the book" for the series, the outline of its themes and action; the biographies of its characters; its pilot episode. Then, as creator and executive producer, he casts the show, hires the directors, crews and writers, the people who will translate the book into scripts for a year's season. Except that Kelley does not need many writers because he does most of that work himself. In the 1998-9 season, he was doing that for three series at the same time: Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope and The Practice.

There are other originating figures on American TV who have invented potent series, such as Steven Bochco who, over the years, has created Hill Street Blues, LA Law (on which Kelley served his apprenticeship) and NYPD Blue. Bochco is a writer as well as a producer, but he has a team of writers to spread the load. Whereas, in this last year, Kelley did every episode of Ally McBeal, and more than half of The Practice.

The Practice is an hour show, about a small legal firm in Boston getting on its feet. If you're doing 26 episodes a year - common - that's the equivalent of a 20-hour movie, with a week for shooting each episode. Doing a TV series is the hardest work in show business. And Kelley does two and three at a time. So he's in the office, say, writing an Ally episode, and they buzz him from the Practice studio because a scene needs more work. So he has to stop and repair it before he can get back to Ally. He is also the man in the office who may have to deal with everything from Standards and Practices saying you can't say "blow-job" on American primetime, to Calista Flockhart's upset because of what the press is saying about her, to a syndication deal on Picket Fences with seven lawyers that means millions over the years, to getting ready to replace most of the cast of Chicago Hope - which Kelly did last season.

And the Kelley shows are good. They are not Tolstoy or Proust, but those guys never had to work this hard, or find out whether they could cut it. The Practice has several sub-stories going on at one time, it has interesting characters (one an overweight woman) and a racial mix that is coming to be unusual in American TV. It is funny and wrenching and the dialogue is memorable. It leaves you daunted by the practical problems that face lawyers every day.

So, you're saying, this David E Kelley, he must be making several million dollars a year. He can afford some help. But I have to stress - I don't think he likes help.

Now, I must tell you something else. Sit down before I tell you.

He is married to Michelle Pfeiffer.

I have no special knowledge of their private life - beyond their having two young children - but I want to propose that to be married to Michelle Pfeiffer is going to take a little time, some thought, some investment of human energy, Maybe more.

I have also heard Kelley claim that he runs a pretty ordinary day. He's in the office from nine to six, and then he goes home , because he likes to be with the kids and help put them to bed. And he has noticed lately that after they're in bed, by nine, he and Michelle are finished. So they turn in themselves. They do keep a date night - Saturday - when they go to see a movie. And on Thursdays he plays in an amateur hockey league (ice hockey) where the other players seem to be getting faster than him, because they're younger and fitter.

Of course, they have help in the house. And if Pfeiffer has to go off on location for a picture, they can bring in more help. He couldn't afford to have his office day interfered with - except by all the things that are going to keep an executive producer from writing. And what he does is sit with a yellow legal pad, handwriting the episodes whenever he's not being interrupted. I can believe that he has good handwriting so the typist can read it, and doesn't have to come after him and ask, "What's that?", and he looks and can't even remember what he wrote.

He could crack. He could be burnt out by 45. He could grow tired of telling stories on TV. Though, as it happens, he has a new series for this upcoming season - Snoops, about a female detective firm. Would you bet against it being a hit? You don't have to enjoy everything he's ever done: for myself, I don't really warm to Calista Flockhart. But I know a bit about writing and family and so on, and I have to tell you, this guy is something. And if it isn't genius, then we have to find a new word.

'Ally McBeal' continues, C4 Wed 10pm