When writer-producer David E. Kelley took over as the show-runner on L.A. Law at the end of the '80s, he transformed a soapy series into an amped-up forum for debating the issues of the day, while simultaneously dissecting corporate politics in the waning hours of the Reagan era. Kelley's first original series, Picket Fences, debuted in 1992 and seemed at first to be riding on the "quirky small town" coattails of Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. But it quickly became apparent that Kelley planned to use his charming Rome, Wisconsin as a microcosm for '90s America: a nation earnestly confronting its conflicting feelings about religion, sexuality, and the limits of personal choice.
Picket Fences covered almost too broad a canvas, encompassing the courtroom, the doctor's office, the schoolhouse, and the home. The 24 episodes on the Picket Fences: Season One DVD feature some game performances—especially by Tom Skerritt as Rome's sheriff and Ray Walston as its judge—but the soft CBS style and Kelley's love of the wacky throws off the tone. Even in Picket Fences' double-length pilot, Kelley begins with a murder during a school production of The Wizard Of Oz, and lets the case balloon to encompass pedophilia, abortion, prostitution, doctor-patient privilege, and a second murder in which the victim drowns in a dishwasher. (He does so love a circus.)
In retrospect, Picket Fences' key character may have been defense attorney Fyvush Finkel, whose impassioned defenses of criminals' rights helped lay the groundwork for Kelley's best series, The Practice. Debuting in the spring of 1997 with a six-episode run, The Practice started out following the ethical quandaries of a low-rent Boston law firm, while featuring cases equally informed by John Grisham's underdog legal thrillers and the post-O.J.-trial fascination with defense-attorney guile. The Practice: Volume One DVD contains the shortened first season plus the first seven episodes of the second season, by which point Kelley had started to make his lawyers more powerful and confident. In the fall of '97, Kelley also unveiled his much more popular Ally McBeal, and before long, some of that show's zaniness began to infect The Practice, but for a few seasons, at least—and especially on the episodes on this DVD—The Practice was an exemplary legal drama, covering the same hot topics as Picket Fences, but with more zealous advocates and less predictable verdicts.
Key features: Cloying 15-minute featurettes on both.