Web Exclusives:


a PAW web exclusive column

November 22, 2000:

An A for effort?
Does David Kelley '79 make the grade for his new television show on FOX?

A review of the show, by Wes Tooke '98

David E. Kelley '79 may be the hardest working man in television. As the creator and writer of two lawyer shows - the whimsical Ally McBeal and the respected drama The Practice - Kelley has become one of the heavyweights of the entertainment industry. Last season, however, as both shows declined in quality, some critics claimed that Kelley had overextended himself (Kelley has also made several films in the last few years, including Lake Placid and Mystery, Alaska).

But instead of reining in his workload, Kelley has instead created another series for FOX, this one set in a high school in the Boston public school system. In tone, Boston Public lies somewhere between his two previous shows: dramatic but not outlandish, funny but not slapstick. Many of the characters have previously appeared in Kelley's dramas, and Anthony Heald, who played a Californian judge on The Practice, is especially compelling as a hard-nosed teacher.

Unfortunately, Boston Public suffers from the same flaws that marred last season's episodes of The Practice and Ally McBeal. At his best, Kelley writes characters who are eccentric yet grounded in reality, and his plots feature controversial issues presented in a new and intriguing way. Boston Public is not Kelley at his best. The characters are cartoonish, but surprisingly uninteresting, and we've seen all these story lines a thousand times before - the athlete who can't play because of his grades, the teacher who slept with a student, the principal who assaults a bully.

Kelley writes too well for the show to be truly awful - the dialogue is consistently entertaining - but Boston Public is shallow entertainment. And Kelley is capable of far better. Boston Public confuses sentimentality with sentiment, and we're forced to sit through several tendentious speeches an episode. Watching the show, it's hard to ignore the fact that Kelley needs an editor.

Kelley's strength as a writer is his ability to take serious issues and present them in a new and interesting way - and that ability sets him apart from 99.9 percent of the writers working in Hollywood. I don't know enough about Kelley's work habits to make this point with any authority, but the decline in the quality of his shows seems to indicate that he is overworked. Although I enjoy seeing a Princeton guy eating up three hours of network air, I know that I would prefer one great Kelley drama to three mediocre ones. Because there are enough mediocre shows on television already.


Wes Tooke is a regular contributor to PAW Online. You can reach him at cwtooke@princeton.edu