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Picket Fences

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If you’re thinking this is going to be yet another piece from a stern TV critic telling you how much you really ought to enjoy Picket Fences, please don’t skip ahead to the Books section. I’m not here to make you feel guilty about the way you’ve been ignoring Quality Television. You just go right on watching 20/20, which invariably beats the whitewash off of Fences in the Friday-night ratings. A bigger audience would rob Picket Fences of its most intriguing quality anyway: It’s the ratings flop that never lets you see it sweat-it always behaves with the serene, self- satisfied assurance of a hit.

If only from the saturation media coverage that Fences, now in its second season, has received, you know the basics: Playing husband and wife, Tom Skerritt and Kathy Baker are Jimmy and Jill Brock-respectively, the sheriff and chief surgeon in the small town of Rome, Wis. In Fences‘ debut season, there was an awful lot of ostentatious eccentricity for what was supposed to be an ordinary little burg. A severed hand turned up in a pickle jar; a dead body was found in a dishwasher. The town courtroom, overseen by the windy Judge Henry Bone (Ray Walston), has a docket that’s always stuffed with grandstanding defendants who are invariably represented by an unbelievably gabby lawyer played with borscht-belt broadness by Fyvush Finkel. Back at the police station, Fences courted what was left of the Twin Peaks vote by installing Zelda Rubinstein as a preternaturally all-knowing switchboard dispatcher.

It seemed to be the idea of creator and executive producer David E. Kelley to cross Thornton Wilder with Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Our Magic-Realist Town. Those easily impressed by any TV project that refuses to be either pure drama or total comedy adored the series and rewarded its bucolic surrealism with fulsome reviews and three Emmys-for Skerritt, Baker, and the show itself. But viewers avoided the show as if something rotten had died on CBS in that time period. So this season, the series is downplaying the oddball stuff somewhat-well, they did manage to have the mayor (Michael Keenan) blow up from ”spontaneous human combustion”-while doing a Fenceified version of ’90s message drama. There’s been a soap opera-ish story line about Maxine, one of Jimmy’s officers (Lauren Holly), falling in love with her therapist (played by thick-tongued Matt Salinger, currently busy being hunkily guttural on Second Chances); this leads to many impassioned speeches about the therapist’s abuse of his emotional authority over Maxine.

The show is fatally fond of the too carefully knotted plot twist. If the episode is to be about rape, you can be sure it will be a man accusing a woman of raping him. And when a recent edition took up the topic of wife-beating, it was almost inevitable, in the Fences way of things, that the victim (played by Megan Gallagher) was a model who had just posed nude in an ad campaign to promote Rome’s milk industry. Poignant wackiness seems to be Kelley’s preferred paradox. Nowadays, in just about every episode-and they’re all either written or cowritten by Kelley-a serious controversy is raised, debated heatedly, and then smothered in overwrought speechifying. What all this suggests is that, festooned with its high honors and low ratings, Picket Fences represents the triumph of middlebrow intellectualism in current television. It is a show that’s always Tackling Major Themes whenever it’s not trying to achieve the sort of sweet whimsy meant to disguise the fact that this is one of the most profoundly humorless series ever made.

All that said, I must also admit that there was one time I really liked Picket Fences this season, and it was the episode I had most dreaded watching. Marlee Matlin (Reasonable Doubts) played a deaf bank robber who called herself the Dancing Bandit-after heisting the loot, she’d switch on a boom box and boogaloo a little in the bank lobby before making her escape. Matlin was, as usual, simultaneously smug and coy, but Kelley’s script added layers of plot that, for once, deepened rather than cheapened the drama. During Matlin’s & getaway, Jimmy took a shot at the robber. As she lay in the hospital, Jimmy was shocked not only at how much guilt he felt, but also at the anger directed at him by one of his sons (Adam Wylie), who’d met the woman and liked her, fey criminal or not. The end of the episode-which featured an exceptionally fine performance by Chris Sarandon as Matlin’s husband-even contained a twist that wasn’t predictable. If only that edition of Fences wasn’t a rarity-a fluke from the heart, free of irony or cutesiness. C

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