‘Fences’ a Treat That Frustrates : Television: Beating the odds, the Emmy winner returns with its quirkiness intact. But tonight’s violence rates a warning.


“Without great reviews (and probably a new time slot), it’s a goner.”

That was one entertainment magazine’s grim forecast a year ago regarding a quirky new CBS series set in a fictional Wisconsin town where a devoted, family-minded couple were pillars of law and medicine, and many other residents were pillars of oddness.

Well, the reviews were mixed, the 10 p.m. time slot endured and, in what is ordinarily a death sentence, the ratings were low. Yet fresh from the September surprise of winning a trio of Emmys, here is “Picket Fences,” somehow returning for a second season tonight against all odds.


Still crazy after all these months.

And still both rewarding and frustrating, as this evening’s episode (on Channels 2 and 8) shows. It finds idealistic Sheriff Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt) bravely going against local public opinion--and his physician wife, Jill (Kathy Baker)--by arresting respected Mayor Bill Pugen (Michael Keenan) on a murder charge.

Written by creator/executive producer David E. Kelley and directed by co-executive producer Michael Pressman, the drama places Sheriff Brock in an epicenter of controversy after the mayor blows away a disarmed thug.

Was the shooting justified or willful murder? Jimmy’s decision to opt for the latter conclusion--even though the mayor is a personal friend--kicks of a trial that pits Dist. Atty. Jonathan Littleton (Don Cheadle) against notoriously bombastic defense attorney Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvush Finkel). Although not necessarily intended, this courtroom duel has an interesting undertone because Littleton, a new-to-town African-American, and Wambaugh, a Jew and former New Yorker, in a sense are both outsiders, both minority specks in the town’s white Protestant majority.

Despite its Emmy as best drama series, “Picket Fences” continues to be uneven, its serious and farcical personalities not always artfully meshing.

As always, it features strong work by Emmy winners Skerritt and Baker as the show’s most-grounded characters. And playing off of today’s news headlines, it seizes on law versus vigilantism as a nagging issue in a nation increasingly defined by both its crime and fear of crime. In the aftermath of the armed mayor’s confrontation with an armed criminal, for instance, gun-hating Jill obtains a weapon herself and signs up for shooting lessons. Thus, the paranoia that began in urban centers touches even small-town America.

“Picket Fences” is that rare series that has both the will and the smarts to tackle serious topics within the realm of entertainment. Yet the shysterish Wambaugh is again such a gratingly overcooked character, and the courtroom sequences are so absurd, that it becomes impossible to take any of tonight’s story seriously.

Except the very tense top of the hour, which features a rather graphic assault and shooting.

A CBS spokesperson said this violence did not earn the episode one of those parental-advisories that the four major commercial networks agreed to run selectively under a plan adopted under pressure last summer because “this is a 10 p.m. show.”

Yes, but a usually nonviolent 10 p.m. show on a Friday, when many young kids are allowed to stay up past their usual bedtimes. This time, it’s CBS that’s asleep.


Usual Suspects: Local news coverage of the Williams-Watson verdicts has at times fed the loony perception that the defendants are getting off without jail time. On Wednesday, for example, a KNBC-TV Channel 4 reporter was in the field soliciting citizen comments about Williams and Watson getting “no punishment.”

Yet as Channel 4’s Jess Marlow noted in an excellent commentary, both Damian Monroe Williams and Henry Keith Watson have already served time for charges relating to this case. And Williams could draw up to 10 years for his one mayhem and four assault convictions, pending the outcome of his appeal.

Volatile cases inevitably spew instant experts, and this one is no exception.

“The last time I checked, no talk-show host was in on the deliberations,” Larry King said on CNN Wednesday night. King, himself probably the nation’s best-known talk-show host, was addressing widespread second-guessing and cheap psychoanalysis of the Williams-Watson jurors by talk-show hosts and other media swamies using the airwaves to pass off wild speculation as information.

Just as the jurors may have had difficulty reading the thoughts of the defendants when it came to determining intent, only the jurors themselves know what was in their minds when they deliberated. Only they can say whether they based their decisions solely on the evidence or on other factors, such as personal fear or worry about inciting violence. So a message to media Karnaks: Cut out the mind-reading.

The media rush to interview jurors appears to be in full swing, despite Superior Court Judge John W. Ouderkirk indicating that they wanted no part of reporters this week. Both Channel 4 and KABC-TV Channel 7, for example, have made on-the-air pleas to jurors, in effect urging them to come in from the cold, promising them anonymity if they agree to be interviewed.

That would end at least some of the guesswork regarding this case’s outcome, but not the clumsy media dissections.

It’s human nature to have opinions and gab about contentious topics, and surely most residents of Los Angeles feel passionately about this one. Yet only those who were in the Williams-Watson courtroom or watched the trial on Court TV--seeing all of the evidence and how it was presented--are qualified to don the media mantle of expert observer and publicly judge its outcome. That also applies to the trials of the Los Angeles cops in the Rodney G. King beating.

Those in the media who have offered broad conclusions that are based solely on sound bites and other press accounts--to say nothing of their own biases--are foolhardy. Dangerously foolhardy.