Is the ''girls club'' creator in a slump? With his new TV show on Fox, David E. Kelley isn't living up to ''The Practice,'' says Ken Tucker
Chyler Leigh, Gretchen Mol, ...
Credit: Girls Club: Timothy White/FOX

Is the ”girls club” creator in a slump?

There’s something either weird or calculated about writer-producer David E. Kelley’s attitude toward women, and for his sake, I hope it’s just calculation. The man who gave us that shivering sliver of insecurity, ”Ally McBeal,” recently unveiled its Mondays-at-9 replacement, ”girls club,” yet another Kelley show about lawyers, (Don’t forget ”The Practice” — the indefatigable Kelley hasn’t; he’s put renewed interest in that Sunday-night warhorse, and it’s still dominating its time period.)

I’m tempted to follow the advice the marvelous Maura Tierney offered last week on ”ER,” when she joked, in a completely different context, ”First rule of girls-club: Don’t talk about girls-club.” But Kelley’s ”girls club” inspires talk — argument, debate, dismay. Its trio of stars — Gretchen Mol, Kathleen Robertson, and Chyler Leigh — play callow associates in a posh law firm. Being young and pals, they say things to each other like, ”Thanks for letting me vent” and ”I have brow issues — they furrow.” Male colleagues ogle them and come on to them; they feel the wrath of older female colleagues, whom they dismiss, with some nervousness, as ”bitches.” One ”club” member calls an imperious woman in the firm ”a total dyke,” and she doesn’t intend the remark to be taken admiringly.

These young women are the protagonists of the series; we’re supposed to LIKE them — have empathy for their put-upon status in the firm. Kelley fixes his show so that the viewer is placed in an impossible situation: If you don’t like these slinky smart-cookies, you’re either a sexist or a fuddy-duddy, or both. And if you do like them and you have any sense of self-worth, you can’t help but feel creepy ogling them as Kelley parades them across your screen in their underwear or in their short skirts.

When the ”girls” aren’t front and center, patented Kelley bizarre plotlines are, and these also tend to be women-centered. The pilot, for instance, featured a lawsuit brought by a woman against her gynocologist, who fainted between her legs during an exam; he inadvertantly gave her what was termed a ”vulva hickey.” Yeah, right — we’re supposed to laugh and gasp at the daringness of such bold vulgarity. It’s the way Kelley, himself trained as a lawyer, intimidates his audiences: Either admire his boldness, or risk the implication that you’re squeamish, or a square.

I guess I’m both, because I found ”girls club” pretty repellent. Judging by this new show and the slightly older one that precedes it, Kelley’s controversy-chasing ”Boston Public,” it’s time for this writer to go into a dark room and put a cool, damp washcloth on his brow. He needs to give it a rest for a while.

At one point in ”girls club,” the boss played by Giancarlo Esposito says to Gretchen Mol’s character, ”You’re a keeper.” Mol retorts, ”You make me sound like a trout.” No, Ms. Mol — David E. Kelley is making you sound like a sucker for taking the bait of appearing on this show.

What do you think of ”girls club” and/or Kelley’s work?

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