David E. Kelley has heard it for most of his career — that he has a knack for writing compelling female leads. Case in point: “Ally McBeal,” written at a time when there weren’t many strong leading women on television.
“I usually duck for cover,” Kelley says about the mention of this part of his TV legacy. “More times than not I feign ignorance and just go, ‘Look, I just try to write characters as interestingly, and with as much dimension as possible.’ I’ve not ever felt that I’ve got an inside track on female characters or the feminine mystique in any way. I just try to write characters. I’m always a bit confused [when people say], ‘you write your females just as strong as the men.’ And I’m like, why wouldn’t I?”
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Kelley is modest when asked about the impact of his work on both television and the greater society. But he has been a part of this nation’s pop culture DNA since the early 1990s — when, as a young Boston-based lawyer, he was tapped by mega-producer Steven Bochco to try his hand at writing for “L.A. Law.” It was a mentorship that soon led to the two of them co-creating “Doogie Howser, M.D.” And then after that, Kelley broke out to create or co-create a steady stream of iconic series: “Picket Fences,” “Chicago Hope,” “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal,” “Boston Legal,” “Boston Public,” “Big Little Lies,” “Nine Perfect Strangers,” “Big Sky” and “Anatomy of a Scandal,” for starters.
If there’s one thing those Kelley shows have in common besides those strong women, it’s their richly drawn characters who explore the best and worst of humanity. No one leaves a David E. Kelley show without thinking about their own morality, their own empathy or their own ethics. And that’s why Kelley has been chosen as this year’s honoree for Variety’s Creative Conscience award, to be handed out at the annual Showrunners’ Dinner presented by A+E Studios during Emmy week on Thursday, Sept. 8.
“I was trained in law, so maybe that’s part of it, but I was always fascinated by that arena, as flawed and inexact as it was and is revealing itself to be more and more, as still the best machinery we have to legislate human behavior and moral behavior,” Kelley says. “And I love that device to mine characters and society at once. I always felt, if you can do a show that entertains and resonates a little bit after the hour is over, then you’ve accomplished something.”
“Doogie Howser” was a comedy, but one that focused on a kid who faced real life-or-death situations as a young doctor. “Picket Fences” was never considered a big hit (although, as Kelley notes, its viewership would make it the No. 1 show today), but it won plenty of critical acclaim — and two outstanding drama series Emmy Awards — for storytelling that wasn’t afraid to test the boundaries of network primetime, touching on LGBTQ issues, racism, abortion, religion and more. “The Practice” and its spin-off, “Boston Legal,” spent plenty of time debating morality and more.
“The Practice” earned two Humanitas Prizes for its exploration of the human condition, as well as two drama series Emmys, while “Ally McBeal” picked up a Peabody Award and a comedy series Emmy. In 1999, Kelley pulled off the feat of winning both drama and comedy series — for “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal” — in the same year.
Now, in this phase of his career, Kelley says he’s enjoying mentoring a new generation of writers — and he’s turning to his memories of the late Bochco for inspiration.
“I will never be as adept as he was in working with other writers, because he truly was a genius at that,” Kelley says. “As good a writer as he was, and great a producer, he was an even better teacher. I don’t have that teaching skill set. But I do have that aspiration to do that with the younger writers. And I got a seed of that aspiration probably planted 30 years ago with him.”
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