Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Picket Fences (TV)

(1992-1996)
Created by (and most episodes written by) David E. Kelley
Starring Tom Skerritt, Kathy Baker, Costas Mandylor, Lauren Holly, Holly Marie Combs, Justin Shenkerow, Adam Wylie, Fyvush Finkle, Ray Walston, Kelly Connell, Zelda Rubenstein, Don Cheedle, Dabs Greer, Roy Dotrice, Marlee Matlin, Robert Cornthwaite
IMDB Entry
Episodes on Hulu

You'd think that a show that won 14 Emmys and was nominated for another 14 would be familiar to TV viewers.  But, other than during the Emmy season, Picket Fences was terribly underappreciated, even when it was on the air.

The show was an early series by the prolific David E. Kelley.  At the time, Khe had made a name for himself writing for L.A. Law, and he had joined up with Stephen Bochco to create the hit show Doogie Howser, M.D.  That success allowed Kelley to create Picket Fences.

The show was set in the fictional Rome, Wisconsin, a place where weird things happened.*  People were found murdered in household appliances, the town is terrorized (well, weirdly annoyed ) by a serial bather, cows give birth to human babies, the Pope testifies in a murder trial, the town's mayors had all the job security as a drummer for Spinal Tap -- these were the weekly events that made Rome so fascinating.

cast of the showThe story centered on the Brock family.  Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt) is the town sheriff, married to Jill (Kathy Baker), who's a doctor.  They have to juggle their careers as well as their three kids, Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs), Matthew (Justin Shankerow), and Zach (Adam Wylie).  Kenny Lacos (Costas Mandylor) and Maxine Stewart (Lauren Holly) make up the sheriff's department, along with their dispatcher Ginny (Zelda Rubenstein).

One of the nice things about the setup is that it combines two of the most common types of TV settings:  the cop show and the medical drama.  This gave Kelley a chance to be able to use either or both as a basis for his plots.  The only thing missing would be a courtroom show . . . .

And it was that, too (Kelley had started as a lawyer).  Most of the issues brought in Rome's irrepressible lawyer Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvish Finkle) to defend -- in startling ways -- the various people arrested, all in front of the irascible Judge Henry Bone (Ray Walston), who is not impressed by Wambaugh's showboating or the bizarre cases he is forced to contend with.

Kelley's writing was funny, but it also dealt with some serious legal and moral issues, often involving the cutting edge of technology.  It was also one of the few mainstream TV dramas where religion played an important role -- the Brocks attended church** and the town clergy were often involved in the issues.

The acting was absolutely first class. Tom Skerritt's*** easy charm made him the sanest and calmest person in Rome.  His relationship with Jill is one of the better TV marriages, and Kathy Baker was perfect.  Holly Marie Combs played the world's most together teenager**** and her brothers were realistically portrayed.  In addition, Finkel's Wambaugh was one of TV's greatest characters -- a P.T. Barnum with a law degree.  Ray Walston as Henry Bone more than managed to hold his own with him.*****

The show had a stock company of actors, so if they needed to write in a Catholic priest, for example, it would always be the same actor, giving the impression that Rome was a real community.  And if someone did a particularly good job (like Marlee Matlin, as the dancing bandit), they were often brought back.

The show cleaned up at the Emmys its first season, getting eight nominations and winning Best Dramatic Series, and Best Acting for Skerritt§ and Baker.  The next year it got four more, again winning Dramatic series and giving Finkle, a veteran of the Yiddish theater in New York, a supporting nod.

But all the critical acclaim faded.  Partly it was because David Kelley became involved in other projects.  He had written at least part of nearly every show, and the quality of Picket Fences slowly suffered.  It was run on a Friday night -- not a good night for TV -- and struggled with numbers its entire run.  The Emmys and acclaim kept it on the air, but once the numbers continued to drop as the show began to show its age. 

Kelley went on to further success with shows such as Ally McBeal, Boston Public, The Practice, and Boston Legal. Most of the cast were able to use it as a springboard to success in TV. Since relatively few people watched during its run, relatively few missed it and, to tell the truth, there was only so much weirdness you could keep coming up with every week.

In any case, it's a show worthy of rediscovery.  Luckily, the first season is on Hulu, so you can rediscover the delights of Rome, Wisconsin.

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*While not as weird as the great Eerie, Indiana, the show did have the same actor as school principal, and also starred Justin Shenkerow.  In addition, Eerie's weatherman was Rome's coroner.  Hmmmn.

**And not just a generic TV church -- they were Congregationalists.

***Skerritt's most visible role prior to this was as one of the co-leads in the movie M*A*S*H, something few people remember since the character, Duke Forrest, did not make it into the TV series.

****A rare breed.  The only other one I can think of in series TV is Molly Quinn in Castle.

***** Walston was supposed to be a one-shot guest star, but he quickly became a regular.

§ Skerritt's look of surprise when his name was called was one of Emmy's most delightful moments.

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