Of the three shows now on the air created by David E. Kelley, The Practice has achieved time-period-winning popularity even as its characters become less involving, while Ally McBeal has suffered the usual fate of a once-hot pop-culture phenomenon: media backlash followed by creative aimlessness. I mean, it’s kinda funny to use the witty drag grande dame Dame Edna to boost your ratings, but piling on Jon Bon Jovi and an innocent child actor to portray Ally’s winsome daughter-she-didn’t-know-she-had is just overkill waiting to be put out of its misery. The remaining Kelley creation, Boston Public, is the only one of the three that seems to fully engage its creator in 2002. Conceived as Room 222 with Steven Bochco-style envelope pushing — i.e., teachers who really care, especially about controversial topics guaranteed to get watchdog groups like the Parents Television Council in a publicity-provoking froth — Boston Public is at once extremely irritating and extremely watchable. That, in fact, is the hallmark paradox of David E. Kelley’s entire career, which includes his stint as head writer of Bochco’s L.A. Law from 1986-91, and as creator of Picket Fences and Chicago Hope.
This season, Kelley is channeling his most provocative messages through two new characters, a former lawyer-turned-scoop-neck-sweatered teacher played by Jeri Ryan (Star Trek: Voyager), and a tough guy with a soft heart played by Michael Rapaport (Beautiful Girls). Rapaport’s Danny Hanson regularly concludes his classes with what he calls ”Talk Time,” during which students can bring up whatever’s on their minds. So far, they’ve gone pro and con regarding religion in schools, and debated what was often called ”the N-word” but was also uttered numerous times outright, in an episode that eventually turned into one big commercial for Randall Kennedy’s real-life new book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. (Rapaport’s Danny Hanson goes out and buys the class copies of the hardcover; talk about every author’s Amazon.com-fed fantasies of spiking sales.)
Ryan’s Ronnie Cooke is incapable of distancing herself from her young charges’ private lives. In the Jan. 21 episode, for instance, she encounters a pregnant student and asks, ”Who’s the father?” ”Miss Cooke…that’s really none of your business,” the girl says. Instead of acknowledging this truth, Ronnie pursues the matter until we arrive at one of the more peculiarly sordid plots Kelley has dreamed up: The girl is carrying her parents’ child (her mother has lupus, cannot give birth safely, so the father’s sperm and mother’s eggs are harvested and…oh, maybe I should have said ”sordidly peculiar”).
Sometimes Ronnie and Danny team up to intrude on students’ extracurricular activities. Coming upon a car that’s rockin’, Danny starts a-knockin’ — and he and Ronnie discover a student making out with a man 10 years her senior. Since the student happens to be the daughter of the principal — Chi McBride, whose starring role has been reduced to glowering in his office and flinching every time one of his nosy staff bursts in with the latest crisis — Ronnie and Danny feel obliged to rat on the girl (who, it should be said, is played with graceful skill by China Jesusita Shavers).
I’ve heard firsthand that real-life teachers like Boston Public for the credit it gives their often-undervalued hard work, and my own daughter was assigned to watch an episode about a student who gets in trouble over a class assignment in which he takes pictures of naked 6-year-olds (assigned to photograph a state of being, he chose ”innocence,” with the irony that his innocently motivated shots were misinterpreted as kiddie porn). I don’t discount educators’ fondness for the show, or doubt that it can provide its own version of Danny’s Talk Time. But too many Publics play out like liberal public-service messages. The show has strived to acknowledge the events of Sept. 11, which is interesting, but it does so with wooden dialogue like ”In the wake of September…kids are more prone to authority figures that make them feel safe.”
And then there’s Public’s most ludicrous subplot: the romance between vice principal Guber (crisp, authoritative Anthony Heald) and a character played by Picket Fences’ Kathy Baker, who started out as a mother with a hook in place of her right hand and currently is a teacher’s aide sporting a prosthetic hand that Guber helped her select from a catalog. The hand is played alternately for laughs or for kinky suggestiveness. Getting audiences and critics all het up over outrageous notions is what David E. Kelley’s writing career is all about. He’s really successful at it, but that doesn’t mean I have to give his school any more than a passing grade.