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A Few Additions to the Script

Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

This year, David E. Kelley is trying to learn the art of letting go. This year, the prolific writer-producer who personally penned nearly every script for “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and “Snoops” last season will be flanked by writing staffs to share the crushing load of producing roughly 70 scripts in all for “Ally” “The Practice” and his newest series, “Boston Public.” (“Snoops” didn’t survive its first season.)

These days, along with solo introspection, Kelley is back in the writers’ rooms, talking plot lines and character arcs. Across the table from him are writers--some he’s known for years, others he’s just getting to know--who will try to find a place within Kelley’s literary landscape.

Although he seems philosophical about the changes, they are the legacy of a difficult and stormy season that ended in May, when the man the TV industry anointed king stumbled.

Indeed, this season’s successes--or failures--may well be determined by how much the artful Kelley actually loosens his grip on the scripts.

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With his stylishly disheveled mass of hair, dry wit and long face that keeps much of his inner thoughts hidden, the producer-writer’s unassuming manner always has been the antithesis of his TV creations--complex, even surreal examinations of human conflict, ethics and emotions filled with dramatic ups and downs that have turned “The Practice,” “Picket Fences,” “Chicago Hope” and his neurotically flavored comedy “Ally McBeal” into critical and popular favorites.

But while Kelley’s on-screen scenarios have earned him a trophy case of awards, last season there was also drama behind the scenes, where unusual twists and turns created an atypically public roller-coaster dynamic.

Slightly more than a year ago, Kelley had just finished making TV history--taking home Emmy awards for both comedy and drama series. Soon after, he signed one of the richest producer-studio deals in television. “The Practice,” which has won Emmys for outstanding drama in two of the last three years, soared to its highest ratings ever. And “Ally McBeal” started the season with an eyebrow-raising episode in which Ally (Calista Flockhart) had torrid sex in a carwash with a worker who turned out to be the fiance of a client.

But all was not gold.

“Snoops,” Kelley’s series about shapely female private eyes that he created for ABC last fall, was an early season casualty. Grumbling erupted as “Ally McBeal” shifted in tone through the season--a creative step that played a role in knocking it out of contention for outstanding comedy series this year, the first time since the show launched in 1997. A shortened “Ally” spinoff and the veteran “Chicago Hope” both bit the dust. And tabloid rumors circulating around the normally sedate offices of David E. Kelley Productions ultimately ended with the departure of one of Kelley’s closest associates.

Before the start of this fall season Kelley--as usual--refuses to be distracted by the past, focusing much of his attention on the highly anticipated drama, “Boston Public,” he developed for Fox.

The series, set in a mid-size Boston high school, is vintage Kelley, filled with a huge ensemble of flawed but dedicated characters often overwhelmed by emotions that conflict with professional duties. Call it “The Practice” with lockers. And, as usual with a Kelley show, there are great expectations that have been heightened due to last season’s events.

“It’s possible that ‘Boston Public’ may get more scrutiny,” says Kelley. “We’re quite pleased with the show. We’ve got a great cast, and they just gelled from the opening day. With any luck, we’ll just put it up there and hope it sticks.”

Kelley, 44, is relaxing in his office at the Manhattan Beach-based Raleigh Studios, where all his shows are produced. The demands of balancing the needs of three series is substantial, and like the shows he creates, Kelley is reflective about the season just behind him and the new one he now faces.

“Maybe time will offer me more perspective about last season, but I’m not sitting around here moping,” he says. “Every year is tough in terms of the workload, and there is always the obstacle staring you in the face of getting the next episode done. If it was a bad year, they should all be that bad. If it’s seen as a failure, it certainly wasn’t the result of lack of effort or focus. . . . It’s always been about making the best show you can. And it will continue to be that way.”

He adds, “I actually thought this year on ‘The Practice’ was as good as any year we’ve done. Maybe it was held up to a higher scrutiny, but if you look at the 22 episodes we did, and stack them up against the 22 shows of past seasons, I thought the year was a strong one. With ‘Ally,’ I was also quite proud. However, many of the episodes were departures from what we had been doing before. I’m not sure that proved to be winning with the critics or the audience.”

Despite his current focus, Kelley has given at least a little thought to rumblings that his enormous success and historic Emmy wins may have resulted in an anti-Kelley backlash.

“So many ask me that question that it makes me wonder whether there’s any legitimacy to it,” he says. “I do know that before last season even started, a lot of press were saying that, because I was doing three shows, the shows would not be as good. It would have been nice if the critics had seen the shows first before making up their minds.”

At this time last September, Kelley was churning out scripts after his triumph days earlier at the 51st annual Prime-Time Emmy Awards. “Ally McBeal” had won outstanding comedy series, and “The Practice” outstanding drama series, a one-two punch no series creator had ever managed.

That Kelley also wrote or co-wrote virtually every episode of both shows firmly established him as the hottest creative force in television.

It was only the beginning.

Almost every network was in the David E. Kelley business. ABC was heavily promoting Kelley’s new detective series, “Snoops,” starring Gina Gershon and Paula Marshall, with the tag, “From the creator of ‘Ally McBeal’ and ‘The Practice.’ ” CBS was celebrating that Kelley, after several years, was increasing his involvement in his medical drama “Chicago Hope,” a move that lured back original series star Mandy Patinkin. Fox and Kelley decided to experiment with a weekly half-hour version of “Ally McBeal.” Using previously aired footage and outtakes, the hope was that the shortened “Ally” would make the series more flexible in the lucrative syndication market.

Then the real drama began.

* Just a few weeks after the Emmy wins, Jeffrey Kramer, head of Kelley’s production company and his right-hand man in development and deal-making, surprisingly resigned. Although the two longtime associates parted amicably, the split followed tabloid reports about Kramer’s alleged relationship with Flockhart.

* “Snoops” drew a lackluster response from critics and viewers despite the star power of Kelley and Gershon. Marshall quit after a few weeks. ABC ultimately canceled the show less than halfway into the season.

* “Ally,” the shortened “Ally McBeal,” flopped.

* “Chicago Hope” failed to gain momentum, and was canceled.

* “Ally McBeal” drew the wrath of some of its fan base when its comedic tone turned serious, and even a bit nasty. An outcry arose when Ally’s ex-boyfriend Billy abruptly dropped dead of a brain tumor.

But the news wasn’t all bad.

* “The Practice,” Kelley’s drama about defense lawyers, scored its highest ratings since its premiere in March 1997 and was nominated again this year for an outstanding drama series Emmy.

* Fox Television Entertainment Group President Sandy Grushow pleaded with Kelley to develop a series for the struggling Fox network. The network scheduled the drama in one of its best time slots, at 8 p.m. Mondays as a lead-in to “Ally McBeal.” Said Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman: “Monday night is no longer Monday night. It’s David Kelley night.”

* Kelley signed a long-term, multimillion-dollar deal with 20th Century Fox Television, his home since he began his career in 1987 on “L.A. Law.”

*

It will be weeks still before any of Kelley’s shows begin airing--"Boston Public” and “Ally McBeal” don’t arrive on the scene until late October and, at press time, ABC still hadn’t set a date for “The Practice” to return. But there is every indication it won’t be a quiet start.

Robert Downey Jr., just a week after being released from Corcoran State Prison, where he was serving time for cocaine possession and subsequent violations of his probation, was cast in a recurring role as a romantic interest for the title character on “Ally McBeal.”

Despite some industry concerns about the casting, Fox’s new entertainment chief, Berman, called the chemistry between Flockhart and Downey “electric.”

But there are other indications that the off-screen drama may calm down.

Kelley, who is well-known for having such a clear vision of his stories that it is easier for him to write the scripts, is instead giving the writing staffs a significant role in shaping the stories for each show. And he has a team of producers, including Bob Breech on “The Practice” and Jonathan Pontell on “Boston Public,” who have been with him for many years and are on his wavelength. He will divide himself among all the shows.

“ ‘Divide’ is definitely the operative word,” Kelley says. “I’m literally spreading myself in equal parts over all three series. The only way this can be done is by getting more help with the other writers. I probably will write the same number of scripts, but instead of dividing it into two shows, it will be three shows.”

In the past, he has written the entire season of two series simultaneously, but this time around he knew he needed help.

“I know it’s tough to do two shows, but I also know it’s doable because I’ve done it. But stretching it to three . . . I just knew it would be crazy to think I could work as hard on three as the other two.”

After a pause, Kelley adds: “It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to do ‘Boston Public’ yet. In my original design, I was going to wait and do that down the road. It’s the blessing and the curse of the other two shows. The blessing is they’re doing well. The curse is that under my contract, it’s time for me to do another one.”

The writers he has hired range from those fairly new in the business to former attorneys, just as he was when he started his TV writing career on “L.A. Law.”

“I meet with the writers on each show, and we all settle on ideas,” he says. “Those writers will then go and do their stories, and I will write a few of my own. I’m the last stop, when the stories come to me, and I do the last pass. In some stories, where they may not connect by original design, I will interconnect them so they seem dramatically organic to each other.”

The staffs have been schooled in the Kelley process and the peculiarities of his shows.

“ ‘Ally McBeal’ has always been more difficult to write because it’s so voice-specific,” Kelley says. “The eccentricities of the characters are harder for the writers to approximate. But now that we’re in the fourth year, they have seen a lot of episodes, and the show lends itself now to a writing staff. ‘The Practice’ is more linear storytelling. Even though there are twists and turns, the show is bound by a certain structure that comes with the reality of the courtroom drama.

“ ‘Boston Public’ will be different because the stories are very interconnected. The corridor at the school will see stories playing through each other. We’ll have as many as six or seven stories going on in any given episode. It will take some time for the other writers to get used to it. But they’ve been there from the beginning and they’ve watched the shows being hatched. As we get to episode six or seven, I expect to be incorporating their stories into the scripts.”

Kayla Alpert, 30, a writer on “Ally McBeal,” said that friends discouraged her from trying to get on the show because of Kelley’s reputation for control. “They said, ‘Forget it, it will never happen, it’s the most personal show for David,’ ” she said. “But it really has been great, and he listens to what a 30-year-old female voice can bring to the show.”

John Sakmar, a writer who had worked on “Judging Amy” with his partner, Kerry Lenhart, before they both jumped to “Boston Public,” said of working with Kelley, “We’ll come in with stories and David will give us feedback. He will give that extra twist or turn that really takes it somewhere else, making you wish you had thought of it.”

“Boston Public” uses a characteristic Kelley touch of mixing drama and comedy to focus on the teachers and administrators at Winslow High. Heading the school is the formidably built principal, Steven Harper (Chi McBride), who wants to make students smarter but at times lets his frustration play itself out physically. Eighty-year-old history teacher Harvey Lipschultz (Fyvush Finkel, a “Picket Fences” regular) still teaches class as if it were the 1950s. Within the corridors of the school, the action shifts from romantic turmoil to a teacher who uses a gun to “teach a lesson” to his unruly students.

“This is a show I’ve wanted to do for a number of years,” Kelley says. “It’s due to my fundamental admiration for teachers. I still believe they are the most powerful people in the country in terms of the future. Most of them don’t even know it. I guess I’ve just always been struck by the level of commitment and compassion they have in the face of such pessimistic odds.”

But this is not “To Sir, With Love” or “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

“All the teachers are flawed,” he says. “In the first few episodes, people may be saying, ‘I don’t want these people teaching my children.’ After six or seven episodes, their impression should be just the opposite. That ultimate conclusion will be seen in the commitment of our characters.”

Recent school shootings and tragedies provided unexpected inspiration for the series.

“What happened at Columbine and these other places scares me to death,” Kelley says. “I think of moving once a month. I don’t want to raise children in Southern California. My wife [Michelle Pfeiffer] and I sit down and say, ‘Where do we go?’ But I don’t think there’s any refuge from the problems and tumult that teens feel.”

Kelley’s is a career that has proven almost an anomaly in a world filled with failed series. For a while, the oddsmakers in Hollywood were wondering when he would--if he would--seriously stumble. And then along came “Snoops,” the show that would make Kelley seem human, vulnerable, again.

“ ‘Snoops’ was a bad idea,” he says simply.

Kelley is philosophical about the demise of his female private eye series. “I owed ABC another show under my contract. I tried my best. I’m least proud of that effort,” he says. “ ‘Snoops’ was hard work because it was not a show in a genre I was comfortable with. I was never satisfied with it creatively.”

Fox Television President Dana Walden said that Kelley is at his best when he is writing “shows he is passionate about that come from his heart.” “Boston Public” falls into that category, she said. “Snoops” did not.

He is not terribly troubled by the failure of the half-hour “Ally,” nor the demise of “Chicago Hope”: “ ‘Ally’ was an experiment that none of us pinned great hopes on; ‘Chicago Hope’ was already on borrowed time, and we felt pleased that we got that extra year.”

*

What did trouble Kelley, though, was the reaction to last season’s “Ally McBeal.”

“Some of our actors did their finest work,” Kelley says. “In the episode where Billy dies, I thought Calista was so phenomenal that she deserved to be noted as a dramatic actress.” He even considered entering her in the dramatic actress category instead of comedy actress in this year’s Emmy race.

That “Ally McBeal” wasn’t even among the comedy series nominated was sobering for Kelley. “It’s still a show I’m very passionate about. In the scheme of things, not being nominated is not a big deal. But we all take pride in the show, and it was disappointing.”

Flockhart said she also was proud of last season’s “Ally McBeal”: “What I admire about David is that he takes risks. He’s not afraid to go far away from the tried and true. There were some very poignant scenes.”

Nevertheless, Kelley and Fox took note of the complaints.

As Berman put it: “I believe David is a man who is sensitive to where he is creatively. There was a feeling among some viewers that the show got away from its real strength, which are its core relationships. He probably thought it was a bit off course and attacked it head on. He’s been very aggressive right out of the box.”

In making a creative recalibration, Kelley says that “Ally McBeal” “will be shrinking a little bit in scope. Where we’ve had our biggest successes is in the smaller stories that our audience can relate to, such as Ally going out on a date.”

Asked if he is working on other projects or new series to add to his workload, Kelley smiled. “No, I’ve got quite enough to deal. This will be it for now.”


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