If anyone knows how to make a law drama, it's David E. Kelley.
The former attorney got his start as an Emmy-honored writer-producer on "L.A. Law," then created his own memorable projects with "Ally McBeal," "The Practice" and the latter's spinoff "Boston Legal" ... as well as the small-town saga "Picket Fences" and the school-themed "Boston Public." Kelley makes a creative return to the courtroom as Oscar winner Kathy Bates ("Misery") plays a lawyer who starts her career over in the NBC series "Harry's Law," premiering Monday, Jan. 17.
Bates' character, the tough and vastly experienced Harriet Korn -- aka "Harry" -- is suddenly downsized, prompting her to start her own firm with a new team consisting of a former corporate attorney (Nate Corddry, "United States of Tara"), a college student (Aml Ameen) and an assistant (Brittany Snow, "American Dreams") who runs a shoe store in the same location as the new law office.
"I get a little squirrelly not having something on the air, not having episodes to do," Kelley says. "The truth of the matter is that I like writing (subsequent) episodes more than I probably like writing pilots, because you're just deeper into the characters, and you can go to more cavernous places with them. In writing a pilot, you're really trying to craft an invitation to the audience that this will be an interesting place and that you should come back and you shall be rewarded."
One interesting twist to "Harry's Law," pilot and beyond, is that Harry originally was written as a male. "We went through the casting process and didn't find anyone who quite embodied everything the character is about," Kelley explains, "and we said, 'You know what? Let's open it up to a woman.'
"As soon as we did that, (Bates) came to mind first. Our casting director didn't even have time to pitch her, because (fellow executive producer) Bill D'Elia's wife had already said, 'What about Kathy Bates?' She was a natural."
However, Kelley wasn't sure he could land ever-busy movie actress Bates for her debut as a series star. "More than anything, it was the character of Harry" that drew Bates to the job, she confirms. "Being originally written for a man, that gave her a certain edge that was very attractive to me. It was exciting to me that she would be written in a more interesting way.
"I don't know how to say this without coming off sounding sexist, but there tends to be more variety in male roles. When I first read the character as written, it may have still made the reference to 'Harry' and I said, 'You've gotta keep it that way.' She's very no-nonsense, she doesn't take any crap from people, and she has a lot of qualities I think we would associate with a man rather than a woman. She's not a standard kind of female moving through this landscape, and that's what appealed to me."
The husband of actress Michelle Pfeiffer, Kelley surely is no stranger to devising female lawyer characters. He's done it for Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu on "Ally McBeal," Camryn Manheim and Kelli Williams on "The Practice," and Candice Bergen and Julie Bowen on "Boston Legal."
While he allows that he's been "applauded for that," Kelley admits, "I'm always a bit confused by it. I'm flattered and grateful for that acknowledgment, but more times than not, I write them the same way I write the male characters. Certainly, they go to the ladies room rather than the men's room, but maybe I'm saluted for not depicting them as inferior. Otherwise, I really don't know."
Seen recently in a recurring role on NBC's "The Office" and movies including "The Blind Side" and the 2008 remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," Bates notes that she was drawn to Kelley's unique voice.
"In the very first scene," she reports, "we see her smoking pot and watching a cartoon, and that's the essence of Harry that I'm hoping to keep throughout the show.
"It's been daunting for me to learn how to make closing arguments, I'll tell you that," Bates adds. "Once, I had one that was five or six pages, and that was a new experience for me. Getting used to the legalese and having that sound comfortable in my mouth, that's been a challenge."
For his considerable stature in the television business, Kelley realizes he faces his own challenges as "Harry's Law" hits the air. Not only is it his first program for the Warner Bros. studio after nearly 25 years at 20th Century Fox, but he says "there's a regime change" at NBC, "and we're unfortunately facing being launched and sold by a regime that's on its way out. It's very difficult."
Also, Kelley reflects, "my audience is dead, by network standards. I think the average audience for 'Boston Legal' was early 50s, and those people just don't exist for the networks' sake. They're interested in 18-to-49, and that's no longer my wheelhouse.
"My audiences tend to skew older, and the subject matter that most interests me is probably going to continue to attract older audiences. If AARP launches its own network, I'm in good shape."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun