Television

Why Has the Second Coming of David E. Kelley Been Such a Quiet One?

He was the most famous TV writer of the 1990s. Now he has as many hits as ever, but he’s staying behind the scenes.

A photo showing David E. Kelly, his hair long and white, in the center, while around him are Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Ally McBeal in his many shows
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO, Emma McIntyre/WireImage via Getty Images, and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

This week, Netflix unveils a new drama series from one of the most successful TV creators of all time—its second, in fact, inside of a month. But where the streaming giant courted headlines with its nine-figure deals with Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, the addition of David E. Kelley to its stable of showrunners has been a much more low-key affair. In part, that’s because Kelley’s shows, Anatomy of a Scandal and the brand-new The Lincoln Lawyer, have arrived piecemeal instead of as part of any master plan—the latter, in fact, is essentially a network castoff, originally intended for CBS until the pandemic derailed production. But considering that Netflix also has a third Kelley show on the way, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full with Regina King attached to direct, the lack of fanfare is a little bit of a puzzle. Kelley, the creator of The Practice, Ally McBeal, Picket Fences, Boston Public, and Chicago Hope, among others, was a star showrunner in an era where few people paid attention to who made their favorite shows, and his recent track record, which includes Big Little Lies and The Undoing, is a strong one as well. So why has the second coming of David E. Kelley been such a quiet one?

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If you weren’t watching TV in the late 1990s, it’s almost hard to explain how famous David E. Kelley was. Selling his first script, for the legal drama From the Hip, while he was still a practicing lawyer, Kelley was hired as a writer on L.A. Law by Steven Bochco, whose hit Hill Street Blues had already made him something of a brand name himself. Within a few years, the two men were equals: They created Doogie Howser, M.D. together, and Bochco handed control of L.A. Law over to Kelley. It flourished under his watch. Kelley, who famously writes his scripts longhand on yellow legal pads, isn’t just a prolific writer but a distinctive one, enough to make even a casual viewer wonder who exactly came up with this stuff. When L.A. Law killed off a major character by having her step into an open elevator shaft, Kelley’s name was on the script. The first show he created on his own, Picket Fences, won the Emmy for best drama its first two years running. (Kelley’s L.A. Law had won three of the four previous years.)

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It was the shows that followed that made Kelley a household name, a star showrunner in an era when most people didn’t even know what a showrunner was. In glossy magazines, he sometimes afforded as much ink as his stars, and on late-night television, he could be seen chopping it up with the hosts. (The fact that he married Michelle Pfeiffer in 1993 certainly didn’t hurt.) The 1999 biography David E. Kelley: The Man Behind Ally McBeal, is a glossy quickie of the kind usually reserved for movie stars, featuring a cover photo of Kelley in awards-show finery but allowing on its second page that he might still, to some readers, be no more than “David who?” But that year, Kelley won the Emmys for both best comedy and best drama, a feat not accomplished before or since.

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In March of 1997, Kelley debuted The Practice, a drama about a scrappy Boston law firm starring Dylan McDermott as the smoldering Bobby Donnell. But it was another hour-long Kelley show set in a law firm that put him firmly in the spotlight. Debuting that fall on Fox, Ally McBeal was an instant sensation, not just in the ratings but in the culture, where Calista Flockhart’s portrayal of a neurotic, pencil-thin attorney whose professional acumen is at odds with her trainwreck of a personal life struck a chord—sometimes resonant, sometimes dissonant—with American women. Like many of Kelley’s shows, Ally was self-consciously quirky to a fault, visualizing its heroine’s insecurities about her biological clock by plaguing her with visions of a computer-generated dancing baby that was one of the earliest internet memes.

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Ally McBeal’s omnipresent anxieties made her a flashpoint for debates about the state of women in American life, and a referendum on the progress of the women’s movement. A Time magazine cover put it bluntly, asking “Is Feminism Dead?” while placing the character’s head in a line with those of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem. Inside the magazine, Ginia Bellafante slammed the show as a representative of “It’s All About Me!” pseudofeminism, harrumphing about the success of Bridget Jones’s Diary and the installation of Alanis Morissette alongside “real artist-activists” simply because she sang about “bad moods or boyfriends who have dumped [her].” The article quoted Kelley’s explanation of Ally McBeal: “She’s not a hard, strident feminist out of the ’60s and ’70s. She’s all for women’s rights, but she doesn’t want to lead the charge at her own emotional expense.” In the New York Observer, Fear of Flying’s Erica Jong pushed back forcefully, essentially accusing Bellafante of doing the patriarchy’s dirty work, and suggesting that many women’s realities lay somewhere between Ally’s self-centeredness and the movement’s idealism: “Most women are not Ally McBeal and most women share Susan B. Anthony’s passion for justice whether we apply the f-word to ourselves or not.”

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In many ways, Kelley’s recent run of hit shows can be seen as an extension of that debate, portraying the woes of women who to some appearances have it all, but who are still plagued by the same things as they might have been a century ago: disloyal friends, unruly children, and faithless, sometimes violent husbands. In Big Little Lies, even Nicole Kidman’s best friends think she has the perfect marriage, right up until the moment her abusive husband tries to kill her. But while some TV critics, like Time’s Judy Berman, have noted the throughline, Kelley himself has largely taken a back seat to his big-name stars. A 2020 Los Angeles Times article about Big Little Lies and The Undoing mentions Kelley’s name three times, Nicole Kidman’s more than two dozen.

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There are still flashes of the outré quirkiness that was once Kelley’s trademark—like the moment when Reese Witherspoon’s Big Little Lies character imagines being thrown to her death with one of the puppets from Avenue Q—but it’s less pronounced, and now that the TV landscape is filled with shows about women that aren’t written by men in their 60s, his prominence might have been an impediment to the shows’ success rather than an enticement. Given that it was Kidman and Witherspoon who optioned and developed Liane Moriarty’s book and brought Kelley on board, it’s only fair that he should be understood as a secondary creative force, but there’s also some wisdom in his staying ever so slightly in the background, given what happened the last time he was the face of a show that was construed as a statement about women’s lives. That lower profile might even have worked to Kelley’s advantage when he took control of Big Little Lies’ second season away from director Andrea Arnold and had it cut instead by first-season director Jean-Marc Vallée, allowing the series to bask in the glow of its female producer-stars while soft-pedaling the ousting of its female director.

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[Read: A New Wave of Shows Cares About a Group of Women the Rest of TV Has Ignored.]

To judge from recent profiles (now confined to industry trades rather than glossy magazines), Kelley’s industrious habits haven’t changed, and the streaming wars seem to only be encouraging his habit. In addition to his three Netflix shows, Kelley is also writing new crime dramas for Peacock, HBO Max, and Apple TV+. As I was writing this, news also broke that Kelley’s other other show with Nicole Kidman, Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers, is headed for a second season, and after I filed, his ABC crime drama Big Sky was renewed for a third. The awards don’t seem to have dried up yet either: He won his first Emmy in almost 20 years for the first season of Big Little Lies, albeit as the show’s executive producer and not its writer.

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But watch The Lincoln Lawyer and you’ll hunt in vain for a hint of a distinctive personality. The closest the show comes to making you wonder who wrote this? is when its main character takes a call and his phone IDs the caller as “Second Wife”—and in this case the question is not an admiring one. Kelley’s mentor Steven Bochco once claimed that “You could give me ten TV scripts with their covers torn off and I could recognize his work in a second.” Now you’d be hard-pressed to tell one from the next. Where once his signature voice could be as obtrusive as a dancing baby, now it seems he’d just as soon you didn’t notice he was there.

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