”The Practice” creator David E. Kelley was once the reigning King of TV. But industry watchers have begun to wonder if the prolific scribe can make a success out of his new drama, ”Boston Public” (debuting tonight on Fox at 8 p.m.). Last season Kelley suffered two humiliating blows: ABC nixed his crime series ”Snoops” midseason, and his once unbeatable ”Ally McBeal” lost 6 percent of its audience among adults aged 18 to 49. Partly because of these setbacks, Kelley tumbled from No. 9 to No. 63 on EW’s just released Power List.
Though ”Boston Public” has received early critical accolades, the program about a collection of quirky teachers in a troubled Beantown high school has yet to spark widespread public interest. A recent awareness poll conducted by media analysts Lieberman Worldwide indicate that only one third of respondents plan to watch the new series’ pilot. But the makers of the show insist that it’s too soon to make such predictions. ”There’s competition,” admits ”Boston”’s coexec producer Jonathan Pontell, noting the growing dominance of alternative cable and reality shows, ”but I think this is a fictional drama that takes a very different path.”
Different, indeed. Monday’s pilot, which provides an introduction to the show’s idiosyncratic ensemble of characters, has already undergone some major editing since it was first shown to industry mavens at August’s annual television press tour. Viewers complained that several aspects of the episode were unrealistic — particularly an antiviolence lecture conducted by geology teacher Harry Senate (played by ”Way of the Gun”’s Nicky Katt).
The segment in which the teacher pulls a gun on his unruly class to demonstrate the negative power of illegal weapons was significantly edited. Another plotline, in which the school principal (played by ”Gone in 60 Seconds”’s Chi McBride) roughs up a surly student, received similar treatment. ”When you’re starting a new series, it takes a while to really find the tone. That [version of the pilot] was shown very early,” says Pontell. ”The comments were not invalid. But we’re not re-creating reality. This is a drama.”
Still, some industry watchers fear that Kelley — who has a rep for keeping a tight leash on all of his shows — may be overextended. Besides ”Boston,” he is also writing new episodes for ”Ally” and ”The Practice.” ”This is something ad buyers worry about,” says TN Media’s Stacey Lynne Koerner. Nevertheless, the scribe insisted on penning ”Boston”’s first six episodes himself, says Pontell, who has worked with Kelley on ”Ally” and ”L.A. Law.” Kelley will also continue supervising the remaining shows, even though they have hired a staff of five other writers. ”The series is at such early stages that David wants to establish the blueprint before other writers start writing on the show,” says Pontell.
Hired help may not be a bad idea. Last year, Kelley took on ”Snoops” during a similarly busy season. (At that time, he also had the failing ”Chicago Hope” on his slate.) The crime series was originally supposed to be his in name only. But Kelley took control after viewing episodes written by coexec producer Rob Thomas — a move that prompted Thomas to quit. And Kelley’s efforts failed to save the show. Likewise, critics including EW’s Ken Tucker have noted a decline in the quality of their onetime fave ”The Practice.” Tucker remarked last year that the program had been allowed to ”slip into mediocrity.” Indeed, that would be a hard lesson for the teachers and students of ”Boston Public” to learn.