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David E. Kelley Knows How to Adapt

Since the ’90s, the screenwriter has almost constantly had a show (or four) on air. Now he has Big Sky and The Undoing, projects in both of this TV era’s dominant forms: the network drama and the prestige miniseries.

ABC/HBO/Ringer illustration

Big Sky and The Undoing are about as different as two shows could be. One is a network drama, on ABC; the other is a prestige miniseries, on HBO. One is set in the sprawling heartland of western Montana; the other takes place in the rarefied climes of the Upper East Side. One is powered by a patchwork ensemble whose biggest name is a scruffy, jacket-clad Ryan Phillippe; the other is an unabashed star vehicle for Nicole Kidman and, to a lesser extent, Hugh Grant. All that unites them is their mutual creator, veteran screenwriter David E. Kelley.

Having multiple shows on the air is nothing new for Kelley, the first and thus far only showrunner to take home Emmys for both Outstanding Drama and Outstanding Comedy Series in the same year. That was in 1999, for the odd-couple combination of The Practice and Ally McBeal. Both may have been hourlong legal stories set in Boston, a premise pulled from Kelley’s earlier career experience, but the similarities ended there. ‘’In The Practice, you have character informed by story; in Ally, you have story informed by character,’’ then–ABC president Jamie Tarses helpfully told The New York Times. Put another way: Ally McBeal had fantasy sequences that paired Calista Flockhart with a dancing baby; The Practice, well, didn’t. Soon enough, Kelley would add the school ensemble Boston Public to the rotation, then Practice spinoff Boston Legal. Though there have been lulls, Kelley’s constant churn of activity has never really stopped; the only real stretch of time without some kind of Kelley show on TV was brief, in the late aughts.

Kelley has, however, emerged into a new phase in the star-driven IP era. He may be married to Michelle Pfeiffer, but Kelley’s most significant collaboration with an A-list actress remains Big Little Lies, the 2017 event series that turned half of television into an arms race to dupe its success. With celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and a flashy, assertive director like Jean-Marc Vallée involved, Kelley became one of the less prominent names associated with the project. But both The Undoing and, to a lesser extent, Big Sky follow the Lies playbook: adapting a dishy page-turner—the former Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known, the latter C.J. Box’s The Highway—into a straightforward genre exercise. Big Sky even stars Witherspoon’s ex-husband and is prominently advertised as “from the creator of Big Little Lies.

The dual wins for Ally and The Practice were bestowed the same year The Sopranos arrived on the scene, a pivot point in TV history that left Kelley in a somewhat awkward position. Like Joss Whedon with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Amy Sherman-Palladino with Gilmore Girls, or Jason Katims with Friday Night Lights, Kelley’s Ally McBeal helped expand what network TV could look like in terms of genre and tone. (In a pre–Jenji Kohan or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend world, a messy female protagonist, blending drama and comedy, and extended fantasy sequences were all still novel concepts.) Still, Kelley’s closest peer in the late ’90s and early aughts may have been Aaron Sorkin, another member of a very select club: showrunners who personally penned—in Kelley’s case, on a legal pad—nearly every script in a full, broadcast-length season. (Kelley insists he does all this on a strict, normal-person schedule of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.)

Yet because these accomplishments occurred outside the sexier, gorier realm of premium cable, then just beginning its dominance over the quality TV discourse, these network innovators aren’t canonized as auteurs in the same way the HBO Davids were. Kelley has a few trademarks across nearly two dozen projects to date: the law, culled from his time as an associate at the 50-person Boston firm Fine & Ambrogne pre-career shift; a sense of humor and personality generally summed up as “quirk,” applied equally to McBeal’s postfeminist messiness and the small-town charms of Picket Fences or the lesser-known Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire. He also has a Cinderella story that helped him stand out at a time when TV writers were increasingly treated as public personae: A litigator who wrote a feature screenplay (1987’s From the Hip) in his spare time, Kelley got recruited by Hill Street Blues Steven Bochco for a nascent L.A. Law. Yet there’s not quite as distinct a Kelley sensibility as there is a Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy one, to name two producers who have followed in his prolific footsteps.

In the years since Kelley’s Emmy triumph, he’s followed the industry trend toward cable and streaming. In the process, he’s tweaked the legal drama still further to fit its new home. Amazon’s Goliath, starring Billy Bob Thornton, has traces of the antihero archetype; both the back half of The Undoing and the second season of Big Little Lies turn into high-stakes trials, as if Kelley were instinctively returning to firmer ground. Mr. Mercedes, on AT&T’s now-defunct Audience Network (which sent critics an honest-to-God smartphone to promote the show, complete with menacing pre-loaded texts), got in on the Stephen King craze with help from Brendan Gleeson. Big Sky thus marks Kelley’s first full-blown network show since the swiftly canceled The Crazy Ones in 2014, best remembered as Robin Williams’s final TV role.

Big Sky is an odd show, and not just because of shoehorned references to a pandemic made by characters who never wear a mask. Besides Box’s novel, its chief inspiration seems to be Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan’s smash Paramount hit about crime in the Treasure State. But where Yellowstone is a Succession-style saga about inherited wealth, Big Sky pits a crew of PIs against a human trafficking ring. There’s no attempt to tell stories about the state’s gradual takeover by big-money expats, or any real mention of its Native population. There’s just Phillippe as a not-very-convincing tough guy caught in a love triangle, and a Batesian mother-son duo as a clichéd Big Bad.

The Undoing, too, is far from Kelley’s best work. After a promising start skewering uptight Manhattan moms, the miniseries has devolved into a psychological thriller sapped of specificity or tension. But even if the execution is off, the existence of such disparate projects in the fourth decade of one’s second career is a testament to how Kelley has managed to morph from a master of procedurals—the most old-school TV format there is—into something much more flexible and enduring. It’s unlikely either The Undoing or Big Sky will last long in our collective memories, but if precedent’s any judge, Kelley’s ability to adapt and experiment will endure.