When in Rome . . . : In The Land of 'Picket Fences,' Folks Don't Do What's Expected

Steve Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar and TV Times

The elementary school teacher is a transsexual. The town dentist is HIV-positive. One townsman is married to both the woman he calls his wife and the teen-ager everyone else thinks is their daughter. And one of the town's police officers is sleeping with a set of identical twins.

It might not be your impression of small-town life. It's certainly not "Mayberry RFD." But according to David E. Kelley, the creator of Rome, Wisc.--the fictional setting of the CBS series "Picket Fences"--it's really the way things are in small towns and big cities all over this country.

"There has always been this mind-set that life in a small town is a little less urgent, a little more laid back and not quite as relevant. And that is the mind-set that I really looked forward to combating," says Kelley, who ran "L.A. Law" for several years before creating his very first series. "I grew up in small towns and all the contemporary, controversial issues were just as much there as in the big cities. Life can be just as critical and hectic, and one of the interesting things about the show is that at first blush we're painting a benign, familiar setting that can appear very safe. But once you take a second look, you'll see that all the dangers prevalent in the urban environment are there as well."

While Kelley's story lines are often wild and bizarre, they are rarely gratuitous. As he did consistently on "L.A. Law," Kelley uses sensationalistic scenarios to explore some of the most controversial issues of the day. The transsexual episode exposed blind prejudice in the community, a prejudice commonly encountered by gay teachers all over the country.

The HIV episode dealt with the prejudice encountered by those infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, while simultaneously exploring the public's fear of HIV-infected health workers. The bigamy story, which prompted a station in Utah to ban the show and another in Seattle to temporarily take the program off the air, was part of an episode that dealt with religious and personal freedom in a world where "family values" and mores are constantly shifting.

Kelley--who learned under Steven Bochco at "L.A. Law" and won several Emmys for best drama series while overseeing the show after Bochco left it in his hands--has written all 22 episodes of this first season of "Picket Fences"--most of them alone in his office in longhand on yellow legal pads. Symptomatic of his off-the-wall sense of humor, he even wrote an episode about a serial bather. But even that twisted tale of a man who breaks into houses just to take a bath turned into a sobering lesson in McCarthyism.

"You snicker at a serial bather to begin with. It's ridiculous, but you stay with it and the show turns into a show about people's fears about those we don't know, those who are different," Kelley says. "When in doubt, let's chase those people out of our town. Often we'll try to seduce the audience at the beginning that this is going to be fun, a romp or a ride and then once the ride has begun reveal some serious subject matter for them to think about.

"I always love to confront bigotries and prejudices, particularly when you can expose them in people you admire. We like to see our own people fall into the traps of paranoia, to find story lines that raise moral or ethical questions without easy answers. If I get any perverse pleasure, it's learning that people are arguing about these things in their own living rooms while watching the show."

Such unflinching attention to the controversies of our time prompted the Viewers for Quality Television to choose "Picket Fences" as the best drama of the 1992-93 season; on March 6 the series was recognized in a Museum of Radio & Television tribute.

But Michael Pressman, the co-executive producer of the series, says that it's the unpredictability and the humor of the show, not just the big issues, that appeal to its fans most.

"The key to the show is variety," Pressman says. "Sometimes it's a comedy, sometimes a drama, sometimes it's a suspense police story. Sometimes we'll deal with a social or political issue and sometimes we'll deal with some heavy family issue, and the audience seems to be responding most to the fact that they love not knowing."

In "Picket Fences," Kelley deliberately created for himself the one thing he really didn't have at his disposal in "L.A. Law": a nuclear family that drives the show. Tom Skerritt plays the town sheriff who is married to the town doctor (Kathy Baker). Together they are raising an alluring teen-age daughter from the sheriff's first marriage and two pre-pubescent sons of their own. While Kelley says he can't create a family crisis each week for fear of painting a totally dysfunctional unit, the strongest and most moving drama in the series emanates from tension and conflict within this high-profile, small-town family.

One of the most emotional episodes of the season, and one of Kelley's favorites, found the entire family walking in on the 17-year-old daughter having sex in her room with her boyfriend. Not only did this crisis bring her birth mother to town for some heated bickering with the stepmom, but it prompted the sheriff to hide his paternal anguish behind the muscle of his job. Instead of dealing with his daughter as a father, he had the slightly older boyfriend arrested for statutory rape.

A former lawyer and the current paramour of Michelle Pfeiffer, the 35-year-old Kelley often creates tension between Skerritt and Baker, pitting them against each other in their professional capacities. In the HIV episode, for example, Skerritt goes ballistic when he discovers that his wife has known of the dentist's condition but did not reveal it because of doctor-patient privilege--even as their children continued to be treated by him. She argues that had she informed him--wife to husband out of concern for their children--he would have revealed the information as sheriff. Indeed, when the information does come out, the town mayor immediately, and illegally, fires the dentist from his job as public school dentist.

While these ethical dilemmas and often-absurd scenarios win accolades, the show has languished in the ratings, partly because of its original scheduling on Friday nights, when TV viewing is relatively low. In light of the Friday handicap, CBS has been delighted with the ratings, Kelley says. But for a former "L.A. Law" producer accustomed to finishing in the Top 20, seeing the show place in the 60s among 90 or so shows on the air has been a "disaster."

Beginning Thursday, "Picket Fences" will go head to head with "L.A. Law" at 10 p.m. While Kelley concedes that every producer insists that his show will be a hit given the right time period, he's pleased the show will get a chance to find its audience on a night when viewers are willing to stay home to watch TV.

"I don't think we have really gotten our crack yet," Kelley says. "I really believe that this show is commercially viable, because aside from the issues and intricate stories of human behavior, we don't forget that we have to be entertaining. I start every episode presuming that the audience has something better to do than watch television and if you want to get them to watch, you better come out of the blocks and arrest them with something that is fun to escape to."

"Picket Fences" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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