It's Monday in America. It's David E. Kelley night again on television.
David E. Kelley night means the phenomenon that is "Ally McBeal," the one unquestioned break-out hit of the television season, which turns up to thrill and irritate viewers in about equal numbers with a new episode Monday night at 8 on Fox, and "The Practice," the highly regarded legal series on ABC, which follows at 9 p.m.Both shows routinely carry the same name under the heading "written by," and the name is that of Kelley, a 40-year-old ensemble-drama maestro whose reputation for the quantity and quality of his work is edging toward legendary status.
The legend-building springs from Kelley's ability to create both the quirk-heavy, smirk-heavy, '90s-woman-defining character comedy of "Ally McBeal" and the legally inventive, morally testing character drama of "The Practice" at more or less the same time. Not only that, he does virtually all the creative work on both shows.
This after already winning seven Emmy Awards for writing and producing drama series like "L.A. Law," "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope."
And marrying Michelle Pfeiffer.
"I know what I'm doing is considered unusual," Kelley said, sitting behind the huge desk in his creatively unruly office. "But it doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me."
Everything about Kelley seems laid back, his demeanor somewhere between laconic and sleep-deprived. The latter might be expected from a man who will write more than 35 hours of television episodes this year. But he quickly dispels any notion that he is a workaholic.
"I work in the office from about 9 to 6; I never work on weekends," he said. He and Pfeiffer have two small children.
But what Kelley accomplishes during his moderate workday defies both television convention and simple logic. Television writers who churn out three or four scripts a year might be considered the norm. For years, Kelley has spun out dozens, routinely writing an entire year's complement of a show's episodes.
"It's one of the miracles of television," said Jamie Tarses, the president of ABC Entertainment. "Nobody writes every episode of a series. It's something that defies explanation, except to say it is attributable to genius, and I know that's not a word you throw around easily talking about television."
Kelley said, in his matter-of-fact way, that he would surely write all 23 episodes of "Ally McBeal" this season and most of the 22 episodes of "The Practice." At about 60 pages a script, that is an annual workload worthy of Dickens, though Kelley isn't working on a per-word contract. He owns both his shows and serves as executive producer.
"This is not a guy who writes every episode because his ego demands it," said Peter Roth, the president of Fox Entertainment and the executive who, at the 20th Century Fox Television studio, first hired Kelley to create a television series. "This is a guy who has such a vision of the characters he's created that he's afraid to let them go, for fear they might be misrepresented."
Tarses said writing both "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" was all the more remarkable because the shows have totally different approaches. "In `The Practice,' you have character informed by story; in `Ally,' you have story informed by character," she said.
Writing a show like "Ally McBeal," in which the title role is played by Calista Flockhart, is rather like producing a novel in weekly installments, Kelley says. Each episode traces the anguish, joys and confusion of a young lawyer who works alongside the lost love of her life in a big-fee Boston firm filled with other self-absorbed, mostly neurotic characters. The scenes are punctuated by musical counterpoint, fantasy sequences and smart, rapid-fire dialogue that is often delivered in the firm's unisex bathroom.
"Ally is a little bit of a novel because you develop character growth and changes and leave them off, and then pick them up in the next episode," Kelley said.
"The Practice," on the other hand, is a more conventional storytelling form, he says, with "characters that have histories, but it's the legal arena you're really exploring."
"The Practice" is also based in Boston, but deals in a grittier legal realm, with the young, aggressive Bobby Donnell (played by Dylan McDermott) and his associates defending drug dealers, murderers and sex offenders, while trying to walk the line between what's ethical and what's at least acceptable.
"The ideal time for writing a script is four days, though sometimes it has to be two or three days depending on the deadline," Kelley said, describing his process as more workmanlike than artistic. "If it's two days, sometimes there are things I see that don't work as well. If I have two weeks, the scripts get kind of flabby and lack the adrenaline that a sense of deadline fills you with."
Like a literary throwback, Kelley writes his scripts in longhand on a yellow legal pad, the method he has followed since his unlikely emergence as a script writer in 1983. Back then, he was a young, aggressive lawyer in a 50-person Boston firm called Fine & Ambrogne. The son of a hockey coach, he grew up in Boston and played the game himself. He was captain of the team at Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1979 with a degree in politics. He followed with a law degree at Boston University.
Happy practicing law in Boston, Kelley had "no intention of ever being a writer," he said. "I never even in college thought writing was something I intended to do." Even more surprising, this madly prolific writer said no teacher had ever told him he showed signs of writing talent. "I guess I probably had characters in my head as a kid but never thought I'd put them into prime time," he said.
As he tells it, one day he decided to try his hand at writing a screenplay, not because he was looking for a career change, but because he had a story idea and wanted to see if he could make some money out of it. The script ultimately became "From the Hip," a modestly successful 1986 movie. But before it was put into production, Kelley got a call from Stephen Bochco, who had created "Hill Street Blues" and virtually invented the contemporary ensemble drama form that has now become Kelley's sig-na-ture.
Bochco was developing "L.A. Law" and needed writers with legal training. He persuaded Kelley to meet him in Hollywood, and the young lawyer never returned to his firm. But this development was so entirely unforeseen, Kelley said, that for several years he kept his office at the firm.
Of course, you might expect that a man who tells several dozen stories a year for television can weave a few creative details into his own story.
Indeed, it seems that this self-described nonwriter, who said in a 1990 interview that it wasn't until he looked at actual movie scripts that he learned that character names go in the middle of the page, did bang out comedy sketches back in law school for the annual follies. "Oh yeah, I did write some of those," Kelley admitted.
And back in Princeton, when it came time to write a senior thesis in politics, what did Kelley, the young man who never thought of himself as a writer, chose to do? He wrote a play.
"Oh yeah," he said, "I remember I raised a few eyebrows in the politics department with that idea."
The idea was so creative, in fact, that Kelley's politics professor had to call in a professor from the English department to help him grade the thesis. Kelley's concept: turn the Bill of Rights into a play.
"I made each amendment into a character," he said. "The First Amendment is a loudmouth guy who won't shut up. The Second Amendment guy, all he wanted to talk about was his gun collection. Then the 10th Amendment, the one where they say leave the rest for the states to decide, he was a guy with no self-esteem."
The politics major got a B from his thesis professor; the future writer got an A from the English professor.
Kelley finally came clean: "I guess I did like to write in college, even though it was only a hobby."
Now he pursues that hobby behind the big desk, traveling easily between the distinctive characters he has created for "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice." The completed script goes to an assistant, who must decipher his "almost illegible" handwriting and type it for the production staff.
Kelley then holds a "tone meeting" to tell the director what tone he intends for every scene. The tone meeting lasts an hour for "The Practice" and twice that for "Ally," which he says demands more massaging. "Characters like Cage and Fish need a very specific tone in their delivery," he said, referring to the odd-couple partners in the firm.
Ally herself requires delicate interpretation, since Kelley is writing the interior life of a character who for many viewers has come to stand as a symbol for women. He admits to feeling a bit daunted.
"You don't want to be burdened with the responsibility of representing a gender," he said. "When we first heard that women all over are identifying with her, we just went `uh oh,' because you know some of the things you're going to have Ally doing you don't want perceived as being your assessment of womankind. This is just Ally."
Though Kelley has invented quirky characters before, virtually an entire town of them in "Picket Fences," the CBS series that won two Emmy Awards but never became a big hit, Ally has struck a chord like no other.
"The whole success of Ally depends on people getting emotionally involved with her," he said. "If you tell me it's working, it doesn't surprise me that people have invested in the character because investing in her is the only way it will work. But I am surprised that it caught on this quickly."
Ally, he said, is not based on any real woman he knows, certainly not his wife, though people often say that Flockhart looks a bit like Pfeiffer. (And it's hard to ignore the fact that McDermott bears a certain resemblance to Bobby Donnell's creator.)
"The genesis of Ally was someone not afraid to be weak," Kelley said. "I'm sure there are little parts of her that are like some people I've known, but she's probably more like Calista than anybody else now."