Programming

David E. Kelley Is Frustrated With Broadcast TV

As 'Boston Legal' wraps, the decorated writer-producer talks with B&C's David Bianculli about his new project with NBC 12/07/2008 05:00:00 AM Eastern

David E. Kelley has made his name in broadcast television, and is hoping for yet another hit with a new project in development at NBC. But as ABC's Boston Legal wrapped this week, even he admitted that the shackles of broadcast television have him eyeing the freedom of cable.

“I get more frustrated than I used to,” Kelley said. “If I come up with an idea for a series that can only be done on cable, I think I'd take it to cable. But for the most part, the stories I gravitate to can be told on broadcast television.”

The series Kelley currently is developing for NBC, for fall 2009, is about an aging Chicago attorney and his young lawyer daughter. “We're getting into the casting now, and I'm confident we're going to find good people,” Kelley said. “Hopefully, it'll be another exercise in madness.”

But first, he closes the curtain on Boston Legal Dec. 8, and is doing something he's done only rarely in his decades-long career: write the finale of his own series.

Boston Legal began as a semi-spinoff, semi-continuation of The Practice, which ran on ABC from 1997 to 2004. In its final season, Kelley staved off cancellation by retooling the show on the fly, jettisoning many cast members and introducing others—including William Shatner as lecherous lawyer Denny Crane and James Spader as loose-cannon attorney Alan Shore.

Boston Legal picked up that fall where The Practice left off—and took off, thanks largely to the passionate performance of Spader, the playful cartoonishness of Shatner, and the surprisingly, increasingly warm chemistry between the two. Boston Legal, from the start, was a rarity on commercial broadcast television—a show that dared to speak about politics, religion and other hot-button issues.

“We definitely tried to distract from the gravity with our absurdity,” Kelley said. “We don't always get it right, but on our best shows it's a wonderful ride of entertainment and fun, and yet it resonates because the show was actually about something.”

Throughout its run, Boston Legal has been loaded with plots and rants about everything from the invasion of Iraq to the Electoral College. And the entire time, ABC has been resistant about the show's content—but not about its opinions.

“The fight doesn't come from a fear of shocking the sensibility of viewers,” Kelley explained. “All the broadcast-standard notes go to the bottom line…The ones we run into the wall the most are the ones where they affect sales.”

Battling with networks, for Kelley, is nothing new. ABC didn't like his interpretation of the British series Life on Mars, and effectively bought him out and revamped the series with new producers, an almost entirely new cast (except for series lead Jason O'Mara), a darker tone, and a move from Los Angeles to New York. But Kelley's end of the deal was sweet: In exchange, the network ordered this season's final 13 episodes of Boston Legal.

From the start, Boston Legal was envisioned as something different. Well, almost from the very start. Originally, when planning a spinoff from The Practice, Kelley and company produced a pilot that, he now says, was professional but not different. He came up with the part-silly, part-outraged approach as a possible way to go, and took the idea to Spader.

“I told him, 'The good news is, I think we'll have a lot of fun doing it this way,'” Kelley recalled. “'The bad news is, it's probably one year and out.' He quite fancied that idea. At that point in his television career, the idea of being married to a particular character, or a series, horrified him. He only came on to The Practice because it was one year.

“The idea we've made it to 100 episodes, I just can't account for.”

I can. It's a combination of the two tones—the ridiculous and the thoughtful—as well as the long, impassioned courtroom speeches and the unique friendship between Spader's Shore and Shatner's Crane.

“It's really been a joy to write that relationship,” Kelley said. “That's not one we conceived from the beginning. That involves a chemistry you just can't orchestrate or predict. It quickly evolved, but the richness of those two together is a testament to those two actors—their commonalities, but also their distinctions.

“I love those balcony scenes, and they seem to be the favorite scenes of many people who talk to me about the show. It might touch on a chord of loneliness that a lot of people feel. We all lead such busy lives. Between work and family, sometimes friendships get pushed aside. Crane and Shore, they take five minutes out of their day to just sit together, without any particular issue or agenda in mind, just to celebrate the company.”

The series ends without a nostalgic parade of familiar faces; Kelley said he considered bringing back actors from The Practice, but some were unavailable, and eventually it was decided that Boston Legal deserved an end it could call its own.

So how will it end? “You know it's on the balcony,” Kelley said. “That's the only way this series could go out.”

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