Saturday, December 27, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #67: Picket Fences, Season One (1992-1993)

Somehow, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. Must be Rome. Wisconsin...

At this time of year (around the holidays), I can't help but to be reminded of David E. Kelly's neo-classic Picket Fences (1992-1996), a beloved and award-winning CBS drama from the mid-1990s.

The association is natural, I suppose. This quirky and at times, revolutionary series concerns the ways in which a "typical" American family (the Brocks) -- and by extension, an entire community (Rome, Wisconsin) -- deals with the concept of tradition, and perhaps more significantly, with the concept of change.

That change invariably involves new (and therefore controversial...) thinking about medicine (assisted suicide, abortion, human growth hormone...), about sexuality (pre-marital sex, gay and lesbian issues, transsexualism, AIDS), about religion (in school, in the home, in the heart), about politics (particularly mayoral politics...), about the law...you name it.

And as the holidays represent a time in which families universally come together around the dinner table to set aside petty differences, share tradition, and discuss, debate, argue and laugh at the vicissitudes of this modern American life (and the blistering pace of progress in medical science, technology and the like...), Picket Fences is a perfect fit.

Not coincidentally, I'm sure, several episodes of Picket Fences' first season (now available on DVD in its entirety) explicitly involve the holidays. "Thanksgiving" (which aired November 13, 1992), concerns a tumultuous family Turkey Day, with generations of Brock family members coming together to reckon with grandpa's (Richard Kiley's) new 26 year-old girlfriend. "High Tidings" concerns a Santa Claus with Alzheimer's. And "Pageantry" represents a most unusual twist on the old Christmas story; one that concerns a post-op transsexual elementary school teacher playing the role of the Virgin Mary in the upcoming Christmas pageant.

Move over, South Park...Picket Fences did the "apolitical" Christmas pageant satire first...by about five years...and frankly, it did it better.

Picket Fences boasts a perfect format by which to consider America and American values at the dawn of the Clinton Age (and the end of the first Bush recession). At the heart of the drama is the blended Brock family, led by the rock-solid town sheriff, Jimmy (Tom Skerritt) and his wife, the town doctor, Jill Brock (Kathy Baker). Jimmy and Jill have three children: teenager Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs) from Jimmy's first marriage, and pre-adolescents Matthew (Justin Shenkarow) and Zack (Adam Wylie).

The stories of Picket Fences take us from the intimacy of the Brock household into Jill's private practice, and -- invariably -- into the public forum by way of the local police department. There, Jimmy's deputies, the gung-ho Maxine (Lauren Holly) and the macho Kenny Lachos (Costas Mandylor) assist in solving many a bizarre local cases (including ones involving perpetrators such as The Green Bay Chopper, Frank the Potato Man, Cupid, and The Frog Man.) In the first season alone, Maxine and Kenny square off against a number of serious and not so serious serial killers. Remember -- this was the post-Silence of the Lambs (1991) nineties.

From the busy police station, Picket Fences invariably escorts us into the court room of Judge Henry Bone (the late, great Ray Walston), an arena where questions of innocence and guilt, right and wrong, fair and unfair, moral and immoral, are rendered impartially. Bone is a paragon of virtue: an elder statesman and oracle who is able to put aside the passions of the moment and consider the questions of the law. His judgments are rendered in logical, intellectual fashion, and universally written with flair.

Bone is perpetually vexed, however by my favorite character on this series, Jewish attorney Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvush Finkel), a real "character" who seems to defend absolutely every litigant in Rome. Wambaugh harbors a brilliant and entirely politically-incorrect sense of humor, and also nurses a deep-seated inferiority syndrome. The entire cast of Picket Fences deserves kudos for great, consistent performances, but the interplay between Bone (Walston) and Wambaugh (Finkel) is an absolute delight; a high point of humor and wit. Every time we land in the court room with these two characters, the writing seems to ratchet up from the level of smart to genius; and the humor goes from being simply amusing to laugh-out-loud funny. When you hear the words "Wambaugh for the Defense," or some blunt variation thereof, hold onto your hats. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

In an important sense, Wambaugh deflates any tendency David E. Kelley might have to become self-important or self-indulgent. Just when you fear the series might become pedantic or lapse into a stultifying lecture on diversity, for instance, Wambaugh strides in and punctures that pompous balloon with an absolutely impolitic remark, rejoinder or joke.

In the annals of TV history, Wambaugh is one of the most remarkable characters ever brought to life, and Finkel is an absolute dynamo of perfect comedic timing and delivery. And on those occasions when Wambaugh does wax serious (discussing the death of his parents during the Holocaust), it practically takes your breath away...because you're not prepared for Wambaugh's perpetual shield of self-mockery and humor to drop so suddenly. It's not too difficult to discern that Wambaugh is the spiritual father of William Shatner's beloved but wacky Denny Crane on Boston Legal. In later seasons of Picket Fences, Wambaugh is pitted against an attorney general that is his equal, played by Don Cheadle, but in Season One of Picket Fences, Wambaugh almost steals the whole show.

I remember watching Picket Fences when it originally aired, and I especially remember the night that it was pre-empted so that the national news could cover the O.J. Simpson freeway chase. What I didn't realize, however, is how many "signature" Picket Fences episodes occur in this remarkable first season. These episodes all ring a bell, but I just didn't remember they came so fast in the series' early history. In this collection, you'll find the episode about a woman whose "killer menopause" is the legal excuse when she runs over her husband with a steam roller ("Bad Moons Rising.") Here is the episode with the Catholic nun/angel of death practicing euthanasia in Rome's hospital ("Sacred Hearts.") Here is the episode "High Tidings" in which -- the day before Christmas, Jimmy and Jill find Kimberly having sex with her boyfriend. Here is "Nuclear Meltdowns," in which Kenny dates identical twins (one spontaneously orgasms while he's having intercourse with the other..).

All I can say is that these episodes are as outrageous, as entertaining, as wicked, and as impolitic as they were sixteen years ago, at the time of original broadcast. Whether the Brocks are reckoning with an Indian tribe that has unexpectedly declared war on Rome ("Rights of Passage") or dealing with Kimberly's unexpected lesbian kiss ("Sugar and Spice,") this series is ribald, witty and wholly endearing. It's also a perfect snapshot of America as it was in the early 1990s. The Red/Blue State Divide was not as pronounced then as it is now, but here you see the seeds of it: good, intelligent Americans countenancing difficult issues and falling on opposite sides due to personal judgment.

What I love so dearly about Picket Fences is that the ideological divide, once breached...is always repaired. Jimmy and Jill fall on different sides of several critical issues (patient-doctor confidentiality, for one), but the center always seems to hold. A country - or a family - divided against itself cannot stand, and Picket Fence understands that well. Characters yell at each other here and passionately argue their points of view. But underneath those differences is a common bond of community and caring, of family and love. And that bond, the series understands, is one that should never be shattered.

I loved Picket Fences when it aired back in the 1990s, and I purchased the first season on a sort of whim, wondering if the series would hold up after so many years. I watched the pilot and had my doubts (it is easily the worst, most-stilted, most-"off" episode of Picket Fences in the first season...), but by the third or fourth episode, I realized that the series remains as imaginative, as informed, as infuriating, as intelligent and as laugh-out-loud funny as I recollected.

So where the hell is the second season collection, 20th Century Fox? Rome isn't just a nice place to visit. One trip there, and you'll want to move in....

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