CBS Closes the Gate on 'Fences' : The Season Ends Tonight for the Quirky Drama of Family Life in the Heartland

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It lasted just four seasons--this compelling, quirky, sometimes bizarre, sometimes remarkable series on CBS called "Picket Fences."

It set no records for longevity in TV drama and it was scarcely a blip on the ratings screen, ranking 80th among prime-time series its first season, 66th the next, 54th the third. Yet it managed to claim a dozen Emmys and 22 nominations, at least so far, including wins as outstanding drama series in 1993 and 1994. For a while, it was the tortoise that outpaced the hares.

Set in the heartland in the fictional town of Rome, Wis., "Picket Fences" focused on the Brock family: the town sheriff (Tom Skerritt) married to the town physician (Kathy Baker), their two sons and his daughter from a first marriage.

"Picket Fences," which tended to move at poetic rather than an "ER" pace, served as a backdrop to explore public and personal issues facing contemporary America: crime, religion, busing, abortion, sexuality, parenting, the right to life, the right to die and, just Monday night, the fallout from a hate-spouting talk-radio shock jock.

The series finale, in two back-to-back hour episodes, airs at 9 tonight.

As David E. Kelley, creator and executive producer for the first three seasons, noted in an interview, you couldn't say of "Picket Fences" that "this is a doctor show, or this is a cop show, or this is a lawyer show or this is a family show. And yet it was all of those things.

"I think this [concept] is what made the show richer. We were able to look at issues and arguments and stories through [myriad] different prisms, to take an issue and see how it resonated through all these different arenas, whether it was the point of view of the family or of the police officer or of society itself as it played out in the courtroom. So its strengths were also its weaknesses.

"The show didn't have a particular political bent," Kelley said. "We came from all sides. There were conservative opinions, liberal opinions . . . diverse points of view."

"Fundamentally it was a show that asked questions and didn't have answers," said Michael Pressman, who served as one of the executive producers this season after working as co-executive producer the first three. "It was a show about values."

At the heart of the critical acclaim were a stellar cast and the writing. Kelley, a veteran of "L.A. Law," wrote 61 of its 88 episodes. "Especially those first two seasons," Skerritt noted, "he was giving us a gift."

Baker, as the passionate and compassionate Dr. Jill Brock, won Emmys in 1993 and 1995. Skerritt, as the humane saxophone-playing Sheriff Jimmy Brock, won one in 1993. Two of the show's major character actors--Fyvush Finkel as the crafty, ebullient town lawyer Douglas Wambaugh, and his foil, Ray Walston, as the straight-arrow, crusty Judge Henry Bone--earned best supporting actor Emmys in 1994 and 1995, respectively.

"The first thing we said, when Kathy, David and I were in the office talking about this [series]," Skerritt said, "was that we respect the audience's intelligence and taste. . . . [Jimmy] was Everyman. Jill was Everywoman. Their marriage was a very good marriage. They had tough times. They butted heads. But they were two people who loved each other deeply, respected each other profoundly."

The couple argued about everything--from his not communicating with her to what may have been her feeling that she was superior to him because she was a doctor. Each at varying points pleaded for the marriage. "If you don't know how much, how very much I love you," Jill said, "then you don't know anything." Jimmy said: "We've been husband and wife for 16 years. When are you going to be sure it's going to last?"--and paused, adding softly--"It's going to last, Jill. . . ."

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The show never took itself too reverentially. A tender "Singin' in the Rain" scene of the Brocks kissing under an umbrella was jolted when he got hit in the behind by an arrow.

And its lead characters did not always behave as expected. When Jill Brock, ordinarily racially tolerant, was mayor last season, she was seen arguing with a black federal judge against busing--"You are the walking, talking personification of federal government arrogance"--saying she feared for her children's safety. But when kids from Green Bay were bused in to Rome, viewers saw them carrying backpacks and wearing faces that conveyed some fear as to their own safety.

For some viewers, it may have been startling when Bone declared the law against physician-assisted suicide invalid. Yet Kelley, a former lawyer, points out that the series "dealt with [the constitutional right to die] last year before [the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals] came out this year and ruled similarly to our judge's ruling. . . . Fetal tissue transplants for Parkinson's? We actually took that on before it became law."

For Kelley, Maine-born and Princeton-educated, "picket fence" was a metaphor. "It was beautiful to look at, but it was jagged on the top. You could see through it, but could you really see through it?--because there were alternating slats, so you were getting a distorted picture. Also, I always wondered why people put them up. Was it to keep the beauty in that particular house or their yard or the state? Or was it to keep strangers out?"

For Walston, the beauty and downfall of "Picket Fences" was that "it would wring the social issues' neck and say to the public, 'What is your opinion? What do you think? You should be thinking about them'--[but] audiences do not want to be confronted with thinking."

The series leaves the regular schedule tonight with four additional episodes--all filmed before the finale--not yet aired. Chris Ender, CBS vice president of media relations, said they will "likely air over the summer." As for not including them in the regular season, Ender said the network needed "to increase audience level on Friday night"--which, he noted, the new cop show "Nash Bridges" is already doing.

The cancellation and quick exit left some bittersweet feelings among the "Picket Fences" staff, but they are putting the best face on it. "I think this show had one more good year," executive producer Jeff Melvoin said. "But we're going out with our heads up."

* "Picket Fences" airs 9-11 tonight on CBS (Channel 2).

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