May 4, 2001


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Genius is rare. So is good television. The two intersect in executive producer David E. Kelley’s programs, which are, in my opinion, some of the only ones worth watching these days. If there are any fans out there of Kelley’s canceled show Picket Fences (a show which incorporated hospital, courtroom, and family drama, Law and Order-type scenarios, and mysticism in each episode) you will be happy to know that you can still catch Fyvesh Finkel, who played Douglas Wambaugh, the infamous defense attorney, on Kelley’s newest series, Boston Public.

Finkel portrays a high school history teacher whose latest faux pas earned him the epithet of “Shakespeare Bigot,” on this show, which has a great deal of potential. Not your typical high school series, it is a far cry from Dawson’s Creek, or anything of that nature. In fact, it shares more similarities with Kelley’s legal drama The Practice than it does with shows in its genre.

The school depicted is not your typical high school. Kelley blends media-documented realities such as Columbine-inspired situations with exaggerated scenarios such as a student spiking a teacher’s coffee with Ecstasy and a suicide club. There’s also a Daria-esque character in whose hands the fate of the school seems to rest, as she maintains a website which defames a new student, teacher, or administrator each minute. The school has attempted unsuccessfully to sue this student a number of times, which provides Kelley with an opportunity to enter into the familiar terrain of the courtroom to portray some interesting legal battles.

Each week, the show wrestles with right to privacy and First Amendment issues, as teachers cite Supreme Court cases as rapidly as the attorneys on The Practice, and students flirt with the line between freedom of expression and “indecency.” It is precisely the blend of harsh realism with borderline fantasy, present in almost all of Kelley’s work, that lends this show its power. We can escape from our world for a brief moment and yet still be able to identify with the characters and situations.

Not only can Kelley transform a stale genre into something that is truly innovative (as he is doing in Boston Public) and create something that is sui generis (as he did in Picket Fences) but, he can also create such divergent programs that it would seem impossible for the same mind to have produced them. Witness The Practice and Ally McBeal. That Kelley can move from something as light, whimsical, and ridiculous as Ally to the somber and intense Practice is remarkable. And that he can be successful in both areas, having won Best Drama and Comedy in the same year, is even more so.

The Practice was labeled “one of the best shows you’re not watching” a few years ago, and I should hope that that has changed. The ethical dilemmas, societal problems, and intriguing legal situations, as well as the emotional charge that pervades every episode, make for an incredibly powerful viewing experience. And, perhaps more importantly, something that can be said of The Practice, as well as the majority of Kelley’s acclaimed shows, is that they make you think, which is a remarkable feat for television.

Archived article by Lisa Dorfman