Revisiting ‘Picket Fences’, David E. Kelley’s Forgotten Comedy

The pilot of Picket Fences, created of David E. Kelley, opens on a small town community production of The Wizard of Oz. At face value, the first few moments seem as wholesome and unoffensive as a sitcom from the ‘50s- as the lullaby league sings the townsfolk in the audience look delighted, not a bit bored, and even the wicked witch can be seen offstage cheerfully bobbing her head to the tune. Then a backstage scream interrupts the frolicking munchkins, and after some quick CPR administered by the town doctor (played by Kathy Baker) she delivers the line that sets the tone for the entire show, “Send your audience home. The Tin Man is dead.”

Picket Fences debuted on CBS on September 18, 1992, and though it won fourteen Emmys during its four seasons, the wave of ‘90s nostalgia that has given us endless reruns of Full House has all but forgotten the quirky comedic drama. Even the fan who enjoyed its original run would have a hard time enjoying an episode for old times sake-the series isn’t on Netflix, was recently removed from Hulu, and only the first season is available to stream on Amazon Instant. Still, it’s a show worth checking out by fans of Community, Scrubs, and any other comedy that has its roots in the bizarre and the absurd.

The show, set in the town of Rome, Wisconsin, follows the lives of Sheriff Brock (Tom Skerritt) his wife the town doctor, and their three children- wise beyond her years Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs), troublemaker Matthew (Justin Shenkarow) and adorable trombone player Zack (Adam Wylie). With dad rounding up the criminals, mom tending to the sick and the kids inevitably involved in any elementary and high school drama the Brocks managed to get tangled up in every possible bizarre incident in their small town, and the well of weird never ran dry. There was the mercy killing nun who liked to play a little song before administering the lethal injections, a robber leaving a trail of frogs, and the mayor who became a victim of spontaneous human combustion. And all these matters were handled with small town morals and oversized ‘90s scrunchies.

A dream cast for a Buzzfeed “Where Are They Now” post, Picket Fences was a starting place for actors like Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Moss, and Holly Marie Combs. Moss got her first recurring character in the show’s first season as adorably precocious Cynthia, a classmate of the youngest Brock who liked to keep her fellow third graders informed about “naked nude sex” using Barbie doll demonstrations as necessary. Cheadle landed the role of the town D.A. (after the original D.A. was found electrocuted in a stranger’s bathtub fondling a teen girl’s underwear) and played the serious foil to the hilarious  wacky yet effective lawyer Douglas Wambaugh (played by Fyvush Finkel) whose catchphrase correctly identified him as “a character.” Combs would become better known as one of the Halliwell sisters on Charmed in the late ‘90s, but as the oldest Brock child she tackled teen angst with just as much skill and gravity as contemporary show My So Called Life, though the issues were often introduced with humor (her parents find out about her sex life when the entire family bursts into her room singing “Jingle Bells” to find her decidedly not alone in bed).

What Picket Fences did so well was allow seemingly absurd situations to carry weight.  A constant source of comedy for the show came from Howard Buss (Robert Cornthwaite), an elderly man suffering form Alzheimer’s first introduced as someone who turns himself in for all of Rome’s crimes and eventually becomes the mayor (they go through a lot of mayors). Yet his character leads multiple storylines examining a patent’s right to end their own live in the face of a terminal illness and when and how a doctor must define doing harm in those situations.

While Kelley’s Ally McBeal definitely relied on the absurd and unexpected (though I understand Kelley didn’t write “Hooked on a Feeling,” I half expected him to file a copyright infringement suit when the familiar “ogachucka” convinced us all to check out Guardians of the Galaxy) it’s his late 2000s  Boston Legal that seems to share the most DNA with Picket Fences. The ridiculous yet successful Denny Crane (William Shatner) is reminiscent of Finkel’s Wambaugh, while awkward yet endearing Rome medical examiner Carter Pike (Kelly Connel) seems like a obvious predecessor to tick-riddled yet lovable Jerry Epsenson (Christian Clemson).

Picket Fences won its Emmys and Golden Globes as a Drama, but its legacy is found in today’s comedies that embrace the strangest situations knowing the audience will accept any scenario if the characters are strong and their love for each other seems genuine.

In that pilot episode it’s revealed (serious spoiler alert) that the tin man was killed by a nicotine injection in a plot hatched by his wife and her lover. Pretty standard Law and Order fare, until you throw in the wife’s apparent suicide achieved by presetting her dishwasher and climbing in, completely naked and clutching one of the china plates her husband gave her every year. The visual of the discovery (think lots of suds) is shocking and noteworthy, but it’s the little funny moments throughout that really make the show, not the shock sight gags. I recommend checking out the first season, and when the series is finally released and it ends up on binge watching lists everywhere, you’ll be that much ahead.

Molly Horan is a writer and stand-up comedian based in NYC. She tweets from @Molly_Horan.

Revisiting ‘Picket Fences’, David E. Kelley’s […]