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A finger on people's pulse

The key to the success formula of TV producer David Kelley, who is also the creator of Emmy-winning "L.A. Law" and "Ally McBeal," lies in his weird, yet wonderful stories and characters, claims RATNA RAJAIAH.


Suetonius, in holding up a mirror to those Caesars of diverting legend, reflects not only them but ourselves: half-tempted creatures, whose great moral task it is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within — for we are both, and to ignore this duality is to invite disaster.— GORE VIDAL.

WHEN PEOPLE write about David Kelley (``David who?''), one of the things that they make it a point to tell you is that he is the man married to Michele Pfieffer (``Oh, that David! Wow!''). As if ensnaring one of the world's most exquisitely beautiful women and luminous actresses is an achievement in itself. Maybe it is, but even so, that's not why I write about Mr. Kelley.

Nor is this a eulogy to the man, even though you could say that there is much about Kelley to eulogise about. A Princeton graduate Boston lawyer who decided to chuck it all up to first write and then make television shows.

And who almost overnight became one of the most successful creators and producers in the history of American television, making his writing debut with "L.A. Law" in 1989. A path-breaking show which went on to win a record number of Emmy nominations and the Best Drama Emmy for four of its first five seasons.

Subsequently, David Kelley's creations — "Picket Fences," "Chicago Hope," "Ally McBeal," and "The Practice" — won him 12 more awards in as many years, including five Emmys and three Golden Globes. And this is not including the countless nominations or the awards won by the individual actors in each of these shows. So, even though it could have been, this is not a gushing paean of praise to David Kelley. Rather it is an attempt to understand Kelley's brand of magic. For a very special reason. And that special reason is this. Slice open any of David Kelley's shows and it is like splitting open a very ripe jackfruit. Almost instantly, you are assaulted by that powerful, unmistakable David Kelley trademark. A swathe of lead characters who, if they weren't so utterly riveting — and often utterly endearing — would be people who, if you met them in real life, you would ask to be consigned to intensive psychiatric treatment; in some cases maybe even into a strait jacket.

Let me demonstrate. "Chicago Hope". A show about a big city hospital staffed by some of America's most brilliant doctors. But in almost every case, the brilliance is served up with its own whacko twist. Take, for example, Dr. Kate Austin (Christine Lahti). One time Chief of Surgery and such a brilliant surgeon that NASA invites her to go into space as part of its space programme. But also so brash and ruthlessly ambitious that she has no friends, no boyfriends (okay, one fling with a hospital electrician that went nowhere), only colleagues who are forced to grudgingly respect her for her astonishing talent. The only person more disliked than her is her predecessor, Dr. Jeffery Geiger (Mandy Patinkin). Dr. Jack McNeil, orthopaedic surgeon who was once Michael Jordan's doctor and who has a gambling habit so bad that he is forced to sign up for Gambling Anonymous under threat of losing his job. Dr. Philip Watters (Hector Elizondo), Dean of Chicago Hope, an astonishingly shrewd yet humane administrator so wedded to his job that he has no personal life, a badly failed marriage and a disastrous relationship with his only son which ends when the boy kills himself. "Chicago Hope" never managed to beat "ER" at ratings, but it won itself and its actors a whole clutch of nominations and an Emmy each for Patinkin and Elizondo, a Golden Globe for Lahti.

Cut from Chicago to Boston. Where the pale, fragile, anorexically beautiful Ally, plagued by that deeply unfeminist, even unfashionable disease of a single, successful woman desperately wanting to be `double', waits for her elusive Prince Charming surrounded by her attendant hallucinations which include the now famous dancing baby, a unicorn, a dead ex-boyfriend and the singer Al Green. Kept company by her colleagues/friends who are no less weird. Like John Cage, senior partner at Cage & Fish, that odd, lonely little boy who grew up to be an odder, lonelier little man whose oddness even his hugely successful career could not compensate for and whose most successful relationships are with a green tree frog and a woman with Tourette's syndrome, accused of trying to murder her ex-boyfriend (Anne Heche in a wonderful special appearance).

Ally's secretary, Elaine, who by her own admission is a `moderately slutty' dresser and in her spare time, eavesdrops at doors, designs face bras, personalised condoms and makes a hobby out of one night stands. Or to put it another way, just another lonely heart, looking for love. And no mention of "Ally McBeal" can be complete without Richard Fish so unashamedly and wholeheartedly obnoxious that it's almost lovable. In 1999, "Ally Mcbeal" broke "Frasier's" five-year hold on Emmy for the Best Comedy. It also happened to be the year in which Kelley became the first producer to win for both Best Dramatic Series ("The Practice") and Best Comedy Series ("Ally McBeal").

This parade of fallen angels dots each and every one of the landscapes of Kelley's creations. And some of them don't even look like angels! "The Practice," based on the story of another law firm, has the almost obese Eleanor whose only hope for a love life is a dating service through which she almost finds her dream man. Except that he turns out to be a little, bald, funny-looking medical supplies salesman, who watches pornographic films and later is the main suspect in a murder where the victim was decapitated.

"Boston Public," Kelley's latest offering, based on an inner city school where the staff has one teacher who shoots off a gun as an anti-violence move; another who kicks a student out of class for not wearing a bra and a third who is on medication to treat her chronic depression!

So is this then the twisted magic of Kelley's shows? That he isthe man with his finger firmly on the pulse of dysfunctional America? That he manages to dig under the glittering golden patina of the American dream right to its lonely underbelly, where actually there lives an often confused, often frightened child, adrift in a sea filled with imaginary monsters? Perhaps.



David Kelley ... . unusual brand of magic.

But more important, I think it's because his characters are created with empathy and love, almost as if he understood each one of them because he has walked down those dark alleys too. So that when you meet them, they come across as real people who aren't ashamed to be human , with fears and faults some of which you would not admit even to yourself and yet you see them up there in a Kelley character, you feel strangely comforted and reassured, as if they are saying, ``So what, we did that too!''

So, maybe for all the vilification that "Ally Mcbeal" faced from critics and the feminist brigade, maybe she touched the secret core of the heart of today's single woman, who, however, successful and `complete' she may claim to be, perhaps still aches for a splash of moonlight and if not a whole red rose, at least a petal or two. But this is still not the whole enchilada. There is one more unusual thing about Kelley's shows — their storylines. Which weaves the characters into situations often so breathtakingly bizarre that as you watch and gasp, you think that not even an imagination as fervid as Kelley's could have dreamt this up! And you know what, you are right — he didn't. Look carefully and you will find that they are inspired from contemporary moral and ethical dilemmas that plague modern society — especially present day America — as a mercurially changing world pushes and redefines our internal and external frontiers, forcing us to contend with things that are stranger than fiction and often more frightening.

In "Ally Mcbeal," a transgender person sues her (his?) employers for sacking her (him) for being one. The premise? That a person's sexuality is her (his?) private matter and as long as it does not compromises her (his?) professional competence, the employer has no business prying into it.

In "Boston Public," a teacher faced with his student's increasing obsession with suicide, forms a `suicide' club where he gets them to talk about it and even takes them to see a suicide victim in a morgue! In "Chicago Hope," a man who was diagnosed to be terminally ill kills the teacher who for years sexually molested him and his classmates. Later, he finds out that he is not terminally ill and confesses his crime to his doctor. Can the doctor violate patient-doctor confidentiality and report the man?

Naturally Kelley is not without his critics. Nor without his misses. Though both "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope" won awards and much critical acclaim, they didn't do well in the ratings game. And right now, it also seems that Kelley has hit his lean patch, though we hope it won't last for seven years.

Since his last spectacular sweep of awards in 1999, Kelley has picked up no major awards. And both "Ally Mcbeal" and "Chicago Hope" are officially off-air.

So what's happening? Just a simple case of what goes up must come down and nothing is forever, not even "Ally Mcbeal"? But the question now is, can Kelley resurrect himself? He will, because a person with Kelley's enormous gift of screen writing and such a front seat view into the tortured but beautiful alleys of human nature cannot be kept away too long from making another weird but wonderful show.

The signs are already promising. Kelley's new show, "Boston Public," is already bucking the charts and "The Practice" continues to hold its own. And if you still need more proof, Kelley has signed a 50-million contract with 20th Century Fox, just a little something to keep his creative tap flowing. A piece of news that almost might make people forget to mention Michele Pfieffer. Almost.

(ratna_rajaiah@vsnl.com)

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