Waaay back before Jack Bauer introduced us to confessions via shoot-the-guy-in-the-leg as a way to get information from a detainee. Before the “blue dress” became an issue. Before “death panels.” Before Fox became “unbalanced.” Even before the definition of “is” was…and, of course, before 9/11, there was “Picket Fences.” It was a simpler time. My family had just returned to the US from Ireland after living in the working class North-side of Dublin while I taught in a Jesuit Secondary school on the South-side. When we returned to California, George H.W. Bush was running for re-election against a Governor from Arkansas. There were shows on TV which we never heard about while in Europe and one of them was “Picket Fences.” I don’t think I appreciated this series when it first ran on CBS beginning in 1992, but last week I started a marathon of watching season 1 via Netflix. Of course when I put on an episode it immediately clears the room (no one seems to share my likes), so I watch them during the morning by myself. Yes, that’s my life. No drama, no excitement, no real job, just watching episode after episode of “Picket Fences” season one.
It is a quirky show created by David E Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice,Boston Public,Boston Legal and others). A Kelley show today has the rep of being “different” which for me, makes them interesting. I like to be fooled into believing one way and having the story turn out the other way. That’s a good story. It seems during the first year of Picket Fences, Kelley attacked a ton of social issues in his sometimes, bent way. While going through the first episodes, I would say to myself, just one more then I quit. Then I would watch one more. And so it went last week. I know the weather was changing outside, but I didn’t care. I began to like the characters,from Sheriff Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt), to Kenny Lacos (Costas Mandylor) and his hyper “I’m calling the FBI” partner Maxine Stewart (Lauren Holly) to the other characters,Dr. Jill Brock (Kathy Baker), the kids Kim (Holly Marie Combs), Matt (Justin Shenkarow) and Zachary (Adam Wylie). Then there is the ambulance chasing attorney Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvush Finkel), the stern activist Judge Henry Bone (Ray Walston),Carter Pike (Kelly Connell), the overzealous Medical Examiner who loves autopsies and exhumations, and of course,the late great Ginny Weedon (Zelda Rubinstein), the diminutive 911 operator who seems to know everything about everybody in Rome, Wisconsin.
As I mentioned, I like to be drawn into a story not quite knowing what is coming next. Law and Order, SVU used to do this but the formula has been used so many times that I can almost pick out the culprit, if the story is a mystery, way before the first commercial break. I use this as a measuring stick on just how effective the story line is. When we watch episodic TV we get used to characters who always play a certain role and are loath to allow them to grow or change their mind. (Sometimes politicians are cast in these same roles and are not allowed to change or grow).
I wouldn’t call the show ground breaking just entertaining. Most of the plots end up in the court room of Judge Bone with what seems like the only attorney in town Douglas Wambaugh and the judge going at it. If there is a draw back to the show, the Judge Bone character seems to lecture us about the judgments he is rendering as if we, the audience, need a polemic on abortion or HIV infections or transgender tolerance. Given that, some of the double plot points are rather interesting. For example in one episode there is a juxtaposition between Matthew beginning puberty and a women who uses menopause as a defense to explain why she killed her husband with a steam roller. In another, the M.E. concludes that a Jewish man was killed by radiation from an alien spacecraft at the same time Jewish burial rites and religious tolerance in general is being debated. In that episode, Wambaugh reflects, rather poignantly, on his own Jewishness and how he was taught, “Just don’t make trouble.” It is usually in these quiet moments that a lesson is taught and understood.
Although at this writing I am still waiting for disc 6 which concludes season one, I have already put Season two in the queue although it is not available yet. The theme song is rattling around in my head. I really need to get a life outside of Rome, Wisconsin.