David E. Kelley is preparing another comeback – and this time, he’s leaving the traditional networks behind.
Kelley’s next series, the Billy Bob Thornton legal drama “Goliath,” debuts Oct. 14 on Amazon. Early next year, he’ll premiere HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley, and after that, DirecTV’s serial killer thriller “Mr. Mercedes.”
But here’s what’s not on Kelley’s docket: Anything in broadcast, where he once upon a time he was king.
“I don’t see a reason to, at this point,” Kelley told IndieWire. “If broadcast TV evolves and really cares about product more than exalting ratings over product, I might. If they got rid of commercials, I might. It’s just hard to succeed with good, solid storytelling with six- and seven-minute acts. In current form, I don’t have much interest to return.”
Kelley said he finally soured on broadcast TV when his last series, CBS’ Robin Williams/Sarah Michelle Gellar comedy “The Crazy Ones,” fizzled after one season.
“The show wasn’t very good,” Kelley admitted. “It started off with great ratings, but after watching three or four episodes, I thought the storytelling was pretty bad. I wasn’t a half-hour person, so I turned that over to half-hour people and was willing to step back.”
But Kelley kept watching – and didn’t like what he saw. “Robin Williams was great… but the stories made me want to hold my nose,” he said. “I went to CBS and said to them, ‘This isn’t very good.’ The ratings were… their response was, basically, ‘We don’t care if it’s any good. The way people watch TV now, is they’ve got their computers open, they’re updating their Facebook status. They have their iPads. They’re doing an email. They’re looking up at the television. Robin Williams is funny. It’s very compatible, this show with the way people watch TV now.'”
Kelley said he left that meeting “thinking that they’re more into making elevator music than they are good product. I realized that the goal wasn’t to make something that people could be proud of or invest in, but something compatible to just go with the business model. I had to look at other avenues.”
It was a revelatory moment for Kelley, who cut his teeth in broadcast with hit shows like “L.A. Law,” “Picket Fences” and “Chicago Hope.” At the height of his career in 1999, Kelley pulled off a remarkable feat: He won the Emmy Awards for Outstanding Drama (“The Practice”) and Comedy (“Ally McBeal”) in the same year.
During that same time, Kelley had four shows on the air. The writer continued his streak into the 2000s with hits “Boston Public” and “Boston Legal.” But he also fronted a number of flops (“The Wedding Bells,” “Girls Club,” “The Law Firm”) and by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Kelley was off TV all together.
More recently, besides “The Crazy Ones,” Kelley also attempted a comeback in 2011 with NBC’s Kathy Bates legal drama “Harry’s Law,” which lasted two seasons. (In between, his TNT drama “Monday Mornings” was also short-lived). “Harry’s Law” did well with total viewers, but sunk with adults 18-49. Kelley called the cancellation “ridiculous.”
“They canceled us because our viewers were too old,” Kelley said. “They just said, ‘We don’t want those viewers.’ They would kill for that number [now]… I had to face the music that maybe what speaks to me is also going to speak to my peers and not necessarily to a younger audience. I saw the writing on the wall that maybe my writing isn’t compatible with the current broadcast demo. I believe people 50 and over are still relevant.”
“Goliath” (which Kelley created with Jonathan Shapiro) stars Thornton as washed-up attorney Billy McBride, who takes on a huge company and the high-priced law firm (led by McBride’s ex-partner, natch) that represents it. William Hurt, Maria Bello, Molly Parker, and Olivia Thirlby also star.
In producing “Goliath” for a streaming service, Kelley said he had “the ability to be a little darker and to be a little more specific with what this show is about… In the streaming world and in the cable world, you can succeed with more of a cult favorite. Without the burden of having to appeal to everybody, you can just be darker, more specific and more patient.”
Meanwhile, Kelley said “Mr. Mercedes” is still on track despite the death of Anton Yelchin, who had been cast in the drama. Brendan Gleeson stars; Yelchin’s role is being recast. And production recently wrapped on “Big Little Lies.”
“It’s been fun to work with actors of this ilk,” Kelley said. “Brendan in ‘Mr. Mercedes,’ Billy Bob and William in ‘Goliath’ and the three ladies in ‘Big Little Lies.’ It’s an extraordinary pedigree on all three shows.”
And as for those days in the broadcast trenches, Kelley said he’s not looking back. “It was pretty easy… actually kind of a luxury not to have to write thinking of commercial breaks. Now, with the viewer seeing it in binge form, you can go deeper and further, knowing your audience is getting that kind of intimacy with your characters.”