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A Few Additions to the Script

David E. Kelley isn't one to dwell on the turmoil of last season, but he has learned a lesson. This time around, the busy producer-writer is embarking on a new series with help.

September 17, 2000|GREG BRAXTON | 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.

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."

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