David E. Kelley has been in the TV business for exactly a quarter-century, having started out as a story editor on Steven Bochco’s L.A. Law in 1986. Right from the start, the former lawyer carved out a reputation for outrageous story lines: He once famously killed off a major character by having her plunge to her death via an empty elevator shaft. By his third season, he was running L.A. Law, and quickly became one of the most successful and prolific creators and writers in TV, with Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Boston Legal all on his résumé. In 1999, Emmy voters awarded him Best Comedy (Ally) and Drama (The Practice) honors during the same ceremony. The last decade has been rockier for Kelley: While Boston Legal turned into a modest hit, he also had number of misfires, from Scoops to The Wedding Bells. But now Kelley seems to be back on track — at least commercially. His latest show, Harry’s Law (which airs tonight at ten), has overcome mediocre reviews to become the only new hit to debut this season on NBC. The Peacock is also moving ahead with a Kelley-penned reboot of Wonder Woman, an idea that has the nerd herd up in arms but could end up once again giving Kelley two shows on the air come fall. Last week Vulture had a long, wide-ranging interview with Kelley about the highs and lows of his careers, charges that some of his shows are anti-feminist, and just why he decided to take on a beloved comic-book icon.
You have the No. 1 show on NBC right now. But the leadership before the current regime of Bob Greenblatt didn’t seem to have a whole lot of faith in it. The early plan was to just air six episodes out of the thirteen you’d produced.
In terms of the bumpiness of the ride uphill, yeah, there is some truth to that. But so is there with all. I mean, The Practice we were stuck on for eight [episodes] and yanked after six. There was even a headline in the L.A. Times that The Practice was canceled that first year. So these things happen in all shows. I don’t think it’s that strange that a show has sort of a bumpy beginning. It’s just part and parcel of the process.
The show’s been doing well, which is probably gratifying.
It gets harder and harder to succeed and find audiences with the 500-channel universe, the remote control, and people being so trigger happy with that remote control. It just gets harder to get a foothold. For me, I’m happy to succeed on any network. At the junket [for Harry’s in January], I was not terribly optimistic for a multitude of reasons. So we’re all feeling gratified. We know there’s a lot of work ahead, but for now, we’re happy where we are, yeah.
How are you feeling about a pickup for season two?
The indication we’ve gotten from NBC is that we’ll be back next year. We’re trusting that indication.
So you seem to like the legal shows.
I promised my kids that the next show I do will not be a law show! They’re ready to do an intervention at this point. But I am still fascinated by the law.
You could’ve had a career in the law. You graduated from Boston University’s School of Law. But then you got a job writing for Steven Bochco on L.A. Law. We think of you as a show-runner, but that was pretty much the only time in your TV career where you worked for someone else.
It was extremely fortuitous that that was my first experience, because I was new to the profession and so many of your work habits start to get formed in those infancy stages of your job. I was with a producer who was a great teacher, and one that really respected the intelligence of the audience and dared you to assume that intelligence and not try to write down to a dumber demographic. And there are those producers that will tell you to do that, because you’re trying to appeal to a broad constituency, so you try to be inclusive of everything — all IQs.
But Steven Bochco was smart; he knew that viewers were smart. He assumed that intelligence. And he instilled a mindset within all his writers to do the same. He was extremely collaborative: You got to pick his brain and you got to watch him. So just through observation and osmosis, you learned a great deal about writing and production. It was probably the best experience any young writer could possibly hope for. And it probably helped that he and I clicked. We just got along right from the beginning. When I came out to Los Angeles, I walked into that writers’ room and I knew within fifteen minutes I was home, and that there was a strong likelihood that I would never be practicing law again. I chalk much of that up to the connection that I made with Steven.
L.A. Law is where we first got a taste of what would be your trademark, those surprise, odd twists, like Roz going down the elevator shaft. Where do those ideas come from?
I promise it isn’t drugs. You know, you sort of get smarter through the years, but that’s the one question I’m really still unable to answer. I do subscribe to the theory that it is entertainment, and when people sit down in their La-Z-Boy chair at the end of the night, they maybe should be able to see something that they’re not going to see in everyday life. So arguments of mine will tend to be more melodramatic, and some of the eccentricities will be heightened. That’s just kind of what I like to do. Also, I loved The Twilight Zone as a kid, and Outer Limits and shows like that, which went in directions that you just never imagined. I do do that. I do say, “Okay, this is the scene, this is the normal way it would go. Is there another way it could possibly go that fits within the context of the show that you may not see coming?”
The first show you helped create from scratch was Doogie Howser.
If you write the pilot you get a “created by” credit. But the truth is, that was Steven’s idea, it was a show he had in his brain, and he came to me, pitched the show to me, and asked if I would like to help him write and I said yes. I learned a lot from that process.
Do you remember casting Neil Patrick Harris?
We searched forever to find this guy. We found actors that really got the kid component down, but didn’t feel like a doctor. We found other actors that could really handle the doctor part of the equation, but didn’t feel like a normal kid to us. It was an exhaustive search. In comes this kid, Neil Patrick Harris — we love him. He’s got an intellect you can actually believe in as he’s spewing up the medical jargon, and there’s something about him — you care about him as a kid. So he’s our Doogie Howser. Then we go to the network — and the network does not like him.
I think under the terms of Steven’s deal, if the producers have their actor, and it’s the network that nixes the project, then Steven [qualified] for a penalty, and it was an enormous penalty. There was a bit of poker being played at the end, and Steven called their bluff. [He] just said, “We’re prepared to shoot with him. If you want to nix him, it’s on your dime.” And ABC blinked. We went ahead and shot that pilot with an actor that the network did not want. And it was a good pilot. We liked the pilot. We give it to the network; lo and behold, they look at the episode — they didn’t like the kid, don’t like the show. And then they test it. It tests a high number, and it’s put on the air because of how it tested — not because anybody at the network believed in it. And the rest is history.
The fact that I was privy to that process taught me a lot about being a producer — and when I say a producer, I mean Steven, because I was just a little fly on the wall. But here was a producer standing by his conviction in his show and his actor — being collaborative to the point where you accept constructive criticism but not compromising on your instincts. And that’s something Steven always instilled in his writers.
When did you first use that toughness Bochco taught you?
It came in handy [on] the first show I did, Picket Fences. The network was staring me down: They didn’t want Kathy Baker, and they didn’t want Tom Skerritt. They didn’t think that these were leads of a television show. Then they both won the Emmy the first year and became staples of CBS.
Your next big show was Chicago Hope, which is now sort of known in part as the show that premiered against ER. It ultimately distinguished itself, but what did you remember of that battle?
I think the media made more of it than the respective producers did. You’re trying to make a series that has a constituency. You’re competing with all the shows really, but mainly you’re competing with shows in your own time slot. So once we were on Mondays and ER was on Thursdays, it was kind of apples and oranges to us. I don’t think they were looking at our numbers. They probably couldn’t see that far in their rear-view mirror. We were quite happy with our show. We made the show that we wanted to make, and it had a long, successful run. It would be silly to compare that run to ER’s because ER was a phenomenon, a juggernaut that no show of mine compared to.
Maybe, though you next had two pretty massive hits at the same time, with The Practice and Ally McBeal. You pretty much wrote every episode of those shows, at least during their early years, which seems crazy.
There was no question it was hard work. The shows were so disparate, that when I would be writing on one, it was a total escape from the other. One show would give me the distance from the other. I would immerse myself in Ally and for four days The Practice did not exist. Finish with that script, return to The Practice and for the next four days or so, Ally McBeal was not on my radar. The two shows sort of turned out to be a very compatible back-and-forth for me. Contrast that to when I was doing Picket Fences and only Picket Fences: The show never leaves your mind. When you’re driving home, those characters are in the car with you. They follow you into your house. Stories haunt you in the shower. You can’t get away from them, and you can lose objectivity a little bit because they’re so ever-present.
I did have a staff on The Practice — a good staff. I had Ed Redlich. I had Steven Gaghan the first year. David Shore, who went on to create House, was on my staff in the first year. Frank Renzulli, who went on to write so much of The Sopranos, was on The Practice. The idea that I was doing it alone on that show was just a misconception. But it was a lot of work. And the prospect of doing two shows next year is, you know, daunting all over again. If in fact I am doing two shows next year, you’re free to call me and say, “How is that?” I’ll let you know. I’ll probably tell you that I’m much older now.
Your boss then, and now, Peter Roth, once told the New York Times back during that era that the reason you write so much of your own episodes isn’t because of ego, but because you’ve invested yourself so much in the characters that you’re sort of afraid to let go of them, to trust them to other writers.
That is a fair description. But I bet that fairly describes a lot of writers in television. If you look at the David Milchs or the Aaron Sorkins of the world, they’re not writing every script because they feel the need to. They’re taking care of their characters. When you create a show, and create characters, these people are like children to you. And you intrinsically know the voices maybe better than other writers do, even good writers who can write good stories. It’s not about being the alpha dog that wants to lift his leg on the tree; it’s about getting the voices and characters right.
What did you learn from those shows that flopped after Ally and The Practice, like Snoops and The Wedding Bells and girls club?
You learn more when things go wrong. You can’t understand success — too many intangibles, like actor chemistry. When you try to quantify what makes something work, you’re in trouble. But I always find it’s easier to dissect failures and see what went wrong. Snoops was probably ill-conceived. It was not made for the right reasons. As part of my overall deal with ABC, I owed them another show. They said what kind of a show they were looking for, and I crafted Snoops — which fit on paper, all the elements of the show that they were looking for, but it wasn’t in me. It wasn’t in my blood. And I think there was a reflection of that in the product. Ironically, I think Snoops was starting to get a little better and could have been better had we had more time to develop it. We had good actors and Hart Hansen was running the staff; he’s now on Bones. I think in time, Snoops could have been successful. Ironically, the demise of Snoops was one of the best successes that I had, because ABC came to us and said, “If we take Snoops off, we will put this show called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in front of The Practice. The Practice was an okay show, but it became a monster after that switch. It turned out to be a real backwards blessing.
Wedding Bells was another mess, one that I probably shouldn’t have taken on at the time. I think also that the mistakes that we made in storytelling and perhaps casting we could have corrected in time. But I’m not sure the nucleus of that show warranted that extra time. So I don’t take issue with network’s decisions to cancel either.
And girls club?
girls club just — people just didn’t watch. I think we had some really good, some complicated stories to tell in girls club. I think the title was probably not a good choice. It suggested something lighter than what we presented. But conceptually that show was a failure. It was stillborn. Nobody tuned in. The network was pleased with those episodes, but just said, “Look, we can’t leave it on there if you and your mother are the only two watching.” I had to agree with them.
You came back after girls club with Boston Legal, which turned into a very successful show for ABC. It was also very overtly political.
I would say if you looked at the balance of the body of my work, even though I do attack topical and provocative issues in both the legal and social, usually I’m addressing questions for which there are no answers, and that I personally don’t have the answer for myself. The exploration of the question itself is the journey. The only show that is an exception is Boston Legal. I really did have a stronger point of view, and the characters adopted that view more times than not. And there was a reason for that. Boston Legal existed in a time in our country where it was suddenly considered unpatriotic to dissent or to debate. And I certainly took issue with that. That series was a bit of a town crier. Most of the other series, if you look back, most people would not know where I fall on the issues.
There have been times in your career when critics have worshipped you, called you a genius. And other times when they’ve been … less kind. If you filter one out, do you have to filter them both?
Yeah, you do. I think any writer has to just be true to his characters and true to himself or herself when he sits down to write. The moment you start subjugating your instincts to what others are going to think of it, you’d be in trouble. For the most part, I think the critics have been very good to me, and a lot of my shows may not have survived but for being championed early by critics. I think some critics have had enough of me, too. They’re probably sick of me. I’ve been around a long time.
Some really have had a problem with some of your female characters.
That one I’m just puzzled by. Because more times than not I write to women the same way I write my men. And I like to think of the women leads in my shows as being pretty strong role models, starting with Kathy Baker in Picket Fences and Camryn Manheim, all the women in The Practice. Candice Bergen in Boston Legal. These are strong people.
Did it sting when Time magazine put Ally McBeal on the cover and asked whether feminism was dead?
That was silly, that she was on the cover of Time. And I was horrified when they said that she was somehow representative of today’s woman. Because that was not my intent, or anybody’s intent on Ally McBeal. Ally McBeal was telling the story of this one eccentric, often neurotic, often vulnerable character. And she represented no one else other than Ally McBeal. That show and that character took on a bigger life than anyone had anticipated with the public and the media, so you’re just open to more scrutiny and that’s a good thing I suppose.
Speaking of inviting scrutiny: Wonder Woman. Why did you decide to take this on?
Well I first said no, for all the obvious reasons. It’s not really what I do; it’s not a genre that’s in my wheelhouse. But then I started thinking about, What if there were such a person in today’s world and what must it be like to be her? And I was imagining the sense of social isolation that she must feel, that she indeed would probably be a rather complicated beast. When I started thinking about all the complications and potential layers to this superhero, I just got more and more intrigued. It was also something I was a little bit afraid of. That’s good, too. Any writer should get out of his or her comfort zone, and this was way outside of mine.
So I took a deep breath and decided to go for it. I did not truthfully commit to doing it until I wrote the script. I was going to try writing it, and if I failed on my own terms, I would say no. If I thought, Yeah, this is something I believe in, then I’d turn it in. And it was something I ultimately did get behind. It was hard, but I had a good time writing it. And Warner Bros. and DC both responded very positively — and off we went.
Then you had to find your Wonder Woman.
It was not an easy search, but it went far quicker than I ever imagined. After writing this script, I remember looking at several people and going, “Yeah, now good luck trying to find her.” She’s got to be strong, smart, emotionally accessible — and oh yeah, an Amazon! Good luck. I remember speaking to DC, and saying, “We may have to compromise on the physicality. We need to go with the best actress. And if the best actress is five-foot-five, we have to be open to that, because there’s too many layers for this character to also demand that she be nearly six feet tall.” And then lo and behold, in comes this girl named Adrianne Palicki.
I had seen her on Friday Night Lights and I always liked her work, but I didn’t get a sense of her stature. I guess he was sitting down in a lot of the scenes. So she stood up, and we met — eyeball to eyeball — she smiled … and I knew during the course of the conversation that this was Wonder Woman. I just knew it. I had an instinctive feeling that this was her. So then she read. And she was. And she is.