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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

Grow Up, David

By Belinda Acosta

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  It's hard not to marvel at David E. Kelley's career. Ideas from his pen and his producer's savvy nabbed Ally McBeal an Emmy for this year's best comedy and another for The Practice as best drama. His Midas touch revitalized Chicago Hope, and though critics appear to uniformly guffaw over Snoops, the newest addition to Kelley's stable of hits, the show is steadily drawing a loyal audience. And let's not forget that Kelley cut his teeth on -- and essentially reinvented -- two TV subgenres: the family drama (with Picket Fences) and before that, the law drama (L.A. Law). All this by the age of 43. He's a television success story, right? It depends on how you define success.

I was about to launch into a tirade about the products of the Kelley factory, particularly his packaging of women. But television critic Jane Rosenzweig states the criticism so succinctly in the November 23 issue of The American Prospect: "Ally has basically created a new category of women on television: pretty young things who, in the guise of successful career women, are actually completely defined by an inability to find a husband and have children." I would add to this description a penchant for infantile behavior, an arrested ability to deal with adult issues and sexuality, or worse, the inability to "compete" sexually, and you get a composite profile of the women Kelley has created. Ally has her dancing baby and tantrums in and out of court. On The Practice, Lindsay Dole is prone to her own hissy fits. The perpetually miserable Lara Flynn Boyle sulks through most episodes, and Emmy Award-winning actress Camryn Manheim gets to be the fat girl who may be smart and feisty, but the best she can hope for in the love market is a habit-wearing serial killer.

This is where the obligatory indictment of Kelley would come in, but I can't do that, because of something he did at Emmy Awards ceremony earlier this year. Kelley was just as shocked over the best drama win for his series The Practice as anyone (mostly, us Sopranos fans). When he returned to the stage to accept his second Emmy (for Ally McBeal), he said he thought he was called back because he was mistakenly holding The Sopranos' trophy for best drama. Compared to director James Cameron (Titanic), who unabashedly declared himself "king of the world" at the 1998 Oscars, Kelley's comment was an open-hearted and generous admission. In that short moment, he showed integrity in realizing that the person with the biggest, and most, toys isn't necessarily the winner. To do so on Emmy night -- when Kelley was being declared television's king of the world -- was impressive.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I think Kelley knows better. He knows how to produce intriguing, groundbreaking work. In its early days, Ally McBeal offered imaginative reflections on the search for love and human contact that did not always revolve around the girl-nabs-boy storyline. (I thought the episode in which Ally befriends a transvestite streetwalker was particularly sweet.) So why is Kelley degenerating into the Aaron Spelling of the late Nineties?

With few exceptions, Spelling products are uniformly superficial, slick, and vapid. Yet, Spelling products -- from Charlie's Angels to Dynasty to Melrose Place to Beverly Hills 90210 -- drew and continue to draw viewers in droves and inspire big-screen remakes like The Mod Squad and the soon-to-be-filmed Charlie's Angels. He's the master of give'em-what-they-want TV. Although Spelling has had a couple of critical successes, most of what he has to offer, by his own admission, is "cotton candy for the mind."

I want more from Kelley. Who else is there to pick up where Norman Lear left off? Lear's penetrating comedies of the Seventies turned a sobering light onto contemporary issues, not through the prism of the glamour and wealth most of us will never experience, but around the Formica table in Edith Bunker's kitchen, or the body-hugging wingback chair where Archie held court in Lear's groundbreaking comedy All in the Family.

It's not that I believe every TV show must carry the weight of the world's woes on its shoulders week after week. But to approach those monsters under the bed through comedy takes a writer of exceptional style and wit. In dramatic television fare, shows including Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, and even Chris Carter's The X-Files have marvelously approached contemporary issues and the broader challenge of keeping faith in an alienating world. But where is this happening in comedy, or in the hybrid "dramedy" that Kelley himself helped invent? Because of its accessibility and (let's face it) its typically shorter viewing time, the comedy in the Lear tradition and perhaps even Kelley's dramedy provide a robust forum for handling the big issues of contemporary life -- that is, they do so in the hands of a person who can manage the form.

Kelley is capable of taking the dramedy and making a much bigger mark. So when I witness his oeuvre veering from once-insightful observations of contemporary women into male fantasies of female eroticism (cat fights and girls kissing girls on Ally), infantalized women, and the kooky, pathetic, or just plain scary characters that orbit the ensemble, I want to scream.

A boy was beaten to death for being gay in Montana. A black man was dragged to death by white supremacists in Texas. Famines, earthquakes, and repressive regimes are destroying the lives of people, not so different from ourselves, in places across the globe. But like the fun yet mind-numbing 1940s movie musicals that bedazzled U.S. audiences while the world erupted into war and unspeakable acts of genocide, Kelley's work is more interested in distracting its audience, taking trips around the belly buttons of the most self-obsessed, spoiled creatures ever created for the small screen.

Certainly, there's room for plain fun on that small screen. Sure, there's an audience clamoring for what Kelley is churning out. But he is in a position to create work that is so much more than a slap on the thigh or a few minutes of chatter around the office water cooler. Not because it's his exclusive responsibility, but because he is supremely able.

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