More than a decade ago, I ran into a friend at a college bookstore. At the time, this man was a professional semiotician and the world's leading academic expert on the delightfully trashy prime-time soap opera "Dallas." On an impulse, I asked him what he thought of the then-new and very hot "L.A. Law."
Plainly thinking about this for the first time, he gazed meditatively into the distance for a few seconds and said, "To the American unconscious, the word law means one thing and one thing only: sex. During the era of 'Perry Mason,' society's rule was thou shalt not. In the era of 'L.A. Law,' the commandment is thou shalt."
David E. Kelley, then writing "L.A. Law," had grasped that commandment before either of us, and he has parlayed it into a storybook career. Next week will see the premiere of his newest series, "Girls Club," and the question is whether the commandment has changed -- and, if so, whether Kelley has noticed.
Kelley is the closest thing mainstream television has to an authentic auteur. After an apprenticeship under Steven Bochco, the original honcho of "L.A. Law," Kelley created "Picket Fences," one of TV's most memorable offbeat drama series, then branched out to write and produce "Chicago Hope," "The Practice," "Ally McBeal," "Snoops" and "Boston Public." During this creative binge, Kelley managed to single-handedly write as many as 39 hour-long scripts in a single season, earn a garageful of Emmys and marry actress Michelle Pfeiffer.
In a medium given to groupthink and least-common-denominator scripts, Kelley follows his own vision. Camryn Manheim, the actress who plays formidable attorney Eleanor Frutt on "The Practice," once described him as an "idiot savant" for his ability to listen to his inner voice and capture his characters on the page.
But the question to be asked as we tune in to "Girls Club" is whether Kelley's inner voice has degenerated into monomania. In recent years, Kelley shows -- once given to incisive, if sometimes mean-spirited, social commentary -- have increasingly turned into prolonged meditations on sex. And not sex as part of the human condition, mind you. Not sex as a cry in the dark, existential night. Not even sex as just plain fun. Just sex 'cause, well, it's dirty. And, alas, exciting, sexy drama -- in the absence of external or interior restraints -- gets old more quickly than Kelley seems to realize.
Consider the miserable final years of "Ally McBeal," in which the characters spent more time in the unisex bathroom talking about the act than practicing law. (By the way, I've been in a lot of big-firm offices but I've never found one with that bathroom.) Richard (Greg Germann) getting a full-body hair whip from Ling (Lucy Liu); Ally (the bizarrely emaciated Calista Flockhart) getting it on with a stranger amid the suds of a car wash; John (Peter MacNicol) succumbing to a dominatrix-entrepreneur (Christine Lahti) whose management philosophy required her employees to submit to her sexual magnetism. And then there's -- well, you get the idea: It starts out racy and ends up yadda yadda yadda.
There's plenty of silly sex stuff in "The Practice," too. The most embarrassing recent example was the show in which oversexed Judge Roberta Kittleson (Holland Taylor) was angered when photos of her gropings with attorney Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco) appear on the Internet. By a bizarre coincidence (who'd a thunk it?) she was called upon that very day to sentence a man who rigged up a video camera to film a young girl (Marla Sokoloff) naked in her bedroom. Kittleson boldly required the defendant to pull down his pants and flash the courtroom. Oh, the irony! Oh, the satire!
Oh, give me a break.
Now Kelley promises to take us into the world of young female attorneys fighting a male-dominated profession and their own inner demons. I am not complaining that the young female attorneys are comely (Chyler Lee, Gretchen Mol and, fresh from the title role in "Torso: The Evelyn Dick Story," Kathleen Robinson), nor that they live in a glamorous loft in San Francisco's North Beach. It's TV, after all, and if I want to watch unattractive lawyers in shabby surroundings, I know the way to my county courthouse.
But I do wonder whether Kelley -- whose fans laud his supposed insight into the female psyche -- will again, as he did with Ally McBeal, miss the real story he's supposedly telling. The explosive entry of young women into the legal profession over the past 25 years is the stuff of great drama. The law is a dry profession, and often brutal. Female lawyers come up against discrimination and harassment, and against the entrenched archetypes of a system that, in many ways, deliberately excludes the feminine. While some young women have left in disgust, a remarkable number have prospered. In fact, in the decade I have been teaching law students and watching them sail into practice, I have been struck by how many of my female students have managed to turn law's obstacles into strengths, transforming themselves and the profession as they did so.
I looked in vain for any trace of those young lawyers in "Ally McBeal the character." Her idea of a crisis was a yeast infection; her idea of a cause was the right to wear a miniskirt in court; her idea of injustice was rival Nell's (Portia de Rossi) hair. Neurasthenic, obsessive, unprofessional and, most of all, desperately in thrall to the male sex, Ally and her chums bore no resemblance to the young lawyers I know.
Far closer to the mark was "Legally Blonde," a 2001 theatrical release (and not a Kelley creation) that told the story of a curvy sorority bimbo who connives her way into Harvard Law School in an attempt to win back her former fiancé. Once there, she discovers her own intelligence and confidence, and she uses these qualities to beat the male system at its own game. This movie features Reese Witherspoon in both a bikini and in a Playboy bunny costume -- but Witherspoon does not end up in bed with anyone. Its story -- and the real story of women in the legal profession -- is not about sex but about power, about the synthesis of female sexuality and feminine intelligence with independence and assertion.
Which brings us back to what I might call the Kelley Commandment, thou shalt. It turns out to be tedious as drama. Law fascinates because it forbids, and drama entertains through what it does not show. In fact, "Perry Mason" reruns now seem more entertaining -- indeed, more contemporary -- than syndicated episodes of "L.A. Law." Mason lived in a world that (for the 1950s) reeked of sex -- Della Street's smoldering glances, buxom gold diggers in tight sweaters, doe-eyed defendants pleading, "Help me, Mr. Mason, I'll do anything." And yet he never turned a Brylcreemed hair. Like all great American detective heroes, Mason represented autonomy -- a man who would not betray his charge for any of the false rewards society could offer. Ally McBeal was the anti-Mason, the queen of what Immanuel Kant called heteronomy, control by outside forces: A bundle of needs, she was ready fodder for any con artist who came along. If the women of "Girls Club" are like her, their story will be worse than retrograde: It will be boring.