David E. Kelley on 'Harry's Law' and Why His Shows Get So Wacky
by Joel Keller, posted Jan 14th 2011 10:00AM
If you've ever been a fan of a David E. Kelley series, whether it was 'Ally McBeal,' 'The Practice,' 'Boston Legal,' or any of his other hits, at one point or another you've probably decried your favorite show going in a direction that can best be described as "wacky."
Kelley's heard that criticism, but feels that's just the way he writes his characters. "I think in 'Ally McBeal' we kind of went off in year 3, but probably came back to earth in year 4.," he told me last week, saying that the show "thrived on its originality.
"It's a difficult trick," he continued. "Your audience has an expectation. They want the show to be the show that they tuned into. They want it to be familiar. And at the same time, show us something new. So it's a very inexact science. And sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don't."
Kelley's latest ball of quirk is 'Harry's Law,' which debuts on NBC Monday, January 17 at 10PM ET. In it, Oscar winner Kathy Bates plays Harriet "Harry" Korn, a Cincinnati patent lawyer who stops caring about her high-priced job and gets fired, forcing her to start a jack-of-all-trades practice in an abandoned shoe store in a developing neighborhood.
The show definitely leans more towards the "funny" end of Kelley's dramatic spectrum, with Harry using a huge gun as protection, her assistant Jenna (Brittany Snow) selling shoes out of the law office to keep it afloat, and a junior associate named Adam (Nate Corddry), who is willing to sacrifice his cushy job because of his admiration for Harry.
Kelley and I talked about the new show, what keeps attracting him to the law as a venue for his drama, and what made Bates so good for the title role.
With 'Harry's Law,' you are back to doing another lawyer show. What is it about the law and lawyers that makes you keep returning to the genre?
Well, first after 'Boston Legal,' I thought that was it, I was not going to do another one. And I found that I missed it. I guess that was the first thing. With the new administration and all the issues at hand, and so many new things facing the country, and the law trying to catch up with it all, I just sort of missed... I felt like, ah, wouldn't it be nice to have a voice during all this as well? So that was probably the start.
I gravitate toward the law, I think, certainly more times than not, because it's our best mechanism for legislating human behavior, and morality, and ethics. And that constantly fascinates me. It's a very, very imperfect beast. I also see the law, really for the first time, being a bit archaic, because the world is changing faster than it can. We are so...our legal system is so married to precedence and what's happened before, which is a bit troublesome, because when all these precedents were decided, they weren't dealing with the world that we are today. And I guess all of that, if that answers your question, keeps sort of gnawing at me to use the law as a way of exploring all this.
What is a good example the law not catching up to society?
In the second episode, we touch on, you know, in this economic world, we're seeing now the forfeiting of a lot of services. One is legal aid. In the lower class, as the disparity of wealth continues to compound in this country, as the economy recovers, you're seeing it recover first at the top end. The stock market has come back. It's funny, because Wall Street probably, at least in part, brought this country to its knees, and yet Wall Street is the first to get bailed out, and also Wall Street's doing very, very well. But the people like Anna Nicholson aren't. So you're seeing all these graphs and numbers that show that we're turning a corner, but it's not reflected on the street.
Have you found the courtroom to be the best venue for these kind of views to come out?
Well, it's getting increasingly challenging to write legal shows. And that's just because the production values of shows have become so sophisticated that to ask an audience to be patient, to sit in the courtroom and listen to Q&A's, I mean, it's just, it's a bit old fashioned. And this show is a bit old fashioned. So it definitely gave me pause into going into these waters again.
This particular series, as it evolves, there's less and less time spent in the courtroom. There's probably an inordinate amount of time in the first and second episodes, given what the series grows into. Most of our time is in the office place, in the street, a lot of alternative dispute resolution. So we are trying to tackle issues of justice in very different forms.
So we're not going to be seeing Harry making the big speech in the courtroom at the end of every episode?
No. You're not going to be seeing that. We felt that it was important that we demonstrate that she could, and that she is a gifted practitioner. I think it's in episode 6 or 7, she's arbitrating a gang dispute between two gangs and it's street justice. There's nothing to do with the law, there's nothing binding about her rule, but they have designated her as the mediator to solve a particular dispute, and if the dispute isn't solved, gunfire's gonna break out. So lives could be on the line. It's a world that she's never obviously been in before as a patent lawyer. We do enjoy a little of the fish out of water storytelling in this series.
Had you toyed with going away from the law with this series?
Well, the original concept of this series was she actually strikes a friendship with a teacher. And the teacher sort of brings her into the teaching world, as well as the legal world. So we kind of cross-pollinate the franchise a little bit. And NBC felt that it really probably played better as a straight-ahead legal drama. And I remember we all took the gulp and said yeah, that may be true, but we've done that before. And does it, in fact, play better? And is it more interesting the other way? And I think we all came to the conclusion that it probably does play better as a legal drama. You can tell stories in a more cogent fashion this way. So we ultimately ended up there.
Did you write the role of Harry with Kathy Bates in mind, or did it develop once you knew that she was available and she was willing to do the role?
A little of both. Well, since we got her, it's been with her in mind, clearly with her in mind. At the beginning, it was written for a man, and we couldn't find the right actor who embodied all the complexities of Harry. One of the problems was, it's kind of a dark character. She's a bit of a pessimist, and is a grump, and doesn't ask anybody to like her, and yet to succeed as a television show, the audience has to like her. So one of the great things about Kathy is you just do (like her). You don't have to sort of write those scenes that declare her soft side to the audience, saying "Please like me," scenes which are probably not true to the character. You don't have to. It's nice that we don't have to, because Kathy kind of oozes it. So yeah, it definitely helps when we sit down and put pen to pad, to have Kathy's voice in mind.
'Harry's Law' has a lot of whimsy and humor in it, closer to 'Boston Public' than 'The Practice.' When you sit down to start a show, when do you decide "OK, this is going to be a funny one and have a little bit of whimsy, and this is going to be a serious one?"
(laughs) You know, it's probably the characters. The humor comes out through the characters. I've never really told jokes. I'm not good at it. Probably the characters, as I write them, they feel funnier or not.
But ideally, I like to have a series that embraces a little of both. Because I think the world is both tragic and funny, and it's nice if you can do a series that captures the same. 'Ally McBeal' was, you know, really out there. I would say 'Boston Legal' was out there with Denny Crane, but also tackled some very serious issues. And the best episodes are when we're able to hit both notes. We don't always do it. There's a risk you get your nose bloodied. Some are too serious, and some aren't serious enough. But I guess at the end of the day, going back to what I said before, I at least like what I'm doing, or the series, to have counted for something.
When you cast Nate Corddry in a role, and you sell shoes out of a legal office, obviously you know that this is not going to be like 'Boston Public' or 'The Practice' was.
Yeah. I think that declares right off, this is not going to be a normal legal show. So yeah, you're absolutely right. I don't think I could write a straight drama. I've tried. As you probably know, I alienate probably just as many people as I attract with some of my nonsense. But I just don't think it's really in me to sit and write a procedural or a straight drama. I'm old enough now that I just, you know, if it's not fun, why do it? So I like to sit and write what I enjoy.
So you couldn't do one of those Jerry Bruckheimer, procedural 'CSI-type shows?
No. And it's not that I don't appreciate the craft, because I do. I know that these are well-produced shows, but it's just not in me. I would ruin them. If you gave me some of those hits for a week, you'd be surprised how fast I could destroy them. (chuckles)
How do you respond to people who say that David Kelley shows get wacky and go off in weird directions as the years go on?
Yeah. It's probably true. I've heard it, and you know, I don't deny... some of them... well, you know, I think that the shows probably were always a little bit wacky. The more common one that I hear is, "Oh there he goes again, and why couldn't he just keep it inside normal bounds?" I think that again, I think I alienate people with some of that nonsense, and that's why other people watch.
But I do believe that in all my shows, I really enjoy the quirky, the eccentric characters, the ones you don't meet every day. The ones that if you did meet them, they'd be the one you'd be talking about. You know, can you believe what so and so did at the end of the day. I tend to gravitate toward those colorful characters. The characters themselves may not be always relatable, but the themes that are within the episode, either the emotional or legal, or dramatic themes in the episode, I hope they are relatable. They're just presented in maybe colorful, off-centered ways through this cauldron of characters that I choose to populate the franchise.
Your shows have been very Boston-centric lately. What was the motivation to move the setting for 'Harry's Law' out to Cincinnati?
Well Boston-centric was a result of logistics more than choice. 'The Practice' was very specific to Boston. You know, I really wanted the feel, the grunge, the smell of those old Boston courtrooms. And that was also a world that I knew a bit. So I really wanted that authenticity. Then once we did 'Ally McBeal,' I pretty much put it in Boston just because I was looking to double up on 2nd units. And then 'Boston Legal' was necessarily in Boston because those guys were established as Boston lawyers in 'The Practice.'
But it wasn't an over-arching desire to stay localed in Boston. It just kind of worked out that way. Cincinnati, it could be anywhere. It could be, you know, Cleveland, it could be any sort of smaller, yet cosmopolitan town that goes through the struggles of both urban and suburban growth, but it's not a sexy town. We knew we just didn't want to make it a San Francisco or a Boston, for example, or Chicago, or a big town like that. We wanted just the sort of second tier.
There was racial tension recently in Cincinnati...
There is racial tension. And we do get into that a little bit. But that wasn't the reason we chose Cincinnati.
I've seen Steve Harris in some of the promos. And I've heard that Camryn Manheim's going to be on the show?
She is. Yep. She comes in later, (as a) district attorney.
Any other alumni from any of your shows going to be showing up?
Not yet. That's all for the first 12 anyway. Whether we get to do more than 12 is, you know, that depends on the ratings gods.
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