David E. Kelley Still Exists, Barely

David E. Kelley, once television’s King of Quirk, is not doing so good lately. He only had one show on the air, Boston Legal, and now that it’s gone, he has none. I liked Boston Legal, but the finale showed Kelley at his worst — xenophobia, sexism, lazy plotting, inability to familiarize himself with the issues he’s preaching about — and suggested once again that without the chemistry of William Shatner and James Spader, the show would have been canceled even earlier than it was. His irrelevance to modern television was demonstrated when he was hired to turn Life On Mars into an American TV series; he turned in a pilot that the network didn’t like, and they redid the whole thing with new producers, new writers and a new supporting cast. Apparently Kelley’s pilot leaned very heavily on jokes about how ’70s clothes and music are different from our own. The version that aired is not perfect, but the characters aren’t cartoons, there are some non-cliche’d choices of music and references, and the humour is dry rather than broad. It is, in other words, not a David E. Kelley show.

Now Kelley is coming back with a show starring Kristin Chenoweth, who ran into some bad luck of her own when Pushing Daisies evaporated. The description of the show is so generic that it could be mistaken for a parody of a David E. Kelley show, if they were still popular enough to parody.

In “Legally Mad,” Chenoweth is set to play Skippy Pylon, a cheerful and brilliant attorney who nonetheless exhibits flashes of psychosis — and enjoys being mistaken for a teenager.

As often happens in TV, Kelley’s strengths have become weaknesses as his writing has become broader, and also as other shows have learned from him and improved upon his formula. Talk about being funny and serious at the same time; Kelley’s shows were all about that — whether it’s Doogie Howser or Picket Fences or Boston Publegal, he’s always mixing up tones and styles — and he also figured out how to use humour and surrealism as a way of dealing with controversial issues at a time when TV networks were very shy about dealing with such things. (Kelley may not know much about the issues he raises, but at least he raises them.) But there are other shows that do similar things and do it better. Sex and the City was kind of like Ally McBeal, except people liked it for more than just one year. And House is, in a sense, a David E. Kelley project: a lead character who says outrageous, politically-incorrect things, a strict formula involving a very weird case every week (plus a B story about personal issues in the office), humour and drama in unusual combinations. But unlike most of Kelley’s shows, it was able to sustain its formula for more than a couple of years. NCIS has some Kelley-esque elements to it as well, but, again, uses them with more discipline and more attention to character and plot and stuff.

Kelley can hardly be considered washed-up, since Boston Legal did turn out some good episodes throughout its run, and he even managed to offer something fun that he hadn’t given us before: outright fourth-wall breaking. But to some extent he’s been replaced by other people who do similar things without making all the characters talk alike.