When visiting Wisconsin, Judge Brendan Babish strongly advises you not to stay out past dark. There's murderers afoot!
Douglas Wambaugh for the defendant, your honor.
Picket Fences is similar in theme to another popular 1990s drama, Northern Exposure. Both showcase an American small town that is populated by eccentrics and is host to a series of odd happenings. Though both shows accentuate the eccentricity of small-town American life, neither is patronizing nor condescending to its characters. But fans of Northern Exposure be warned, Picket Fences does have a slightly darker tone, and often features violent crime and storylines that tackle controversial issues.
Facts of the Case
In the center of the Rome, Wisconsin maelstrom of oddity is the Brock family. Its head is Sheriff Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt, Cheers), a crusty but affable lawman, and his wife, Jill (Kathy Baker, Mad Dog and Glory), a local doctor and idealist. Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs, Charmed) is Jimmy's daughter from his first marriage; she's a bit of an egghead, but attractive enough to be part of her high school's in-crowd. Jimmy and Jill have two children of their own: Matthew (Justin Shenkarow), who is pretty much Bart Simpson with karate skills, and Zach, a cute munchkin who is pretty nondescript except for his adeptness on the trombone.
As the majority of the episodes feature some sort of sensational crime, much of the show's action centers on the police station where Jimmy works. Jimmy is assisted by his two pulchritudinous deputies, Kenny (Costas Mandylor, Mobsters) and Maxine (Lauren Holly, Dumb & Dumber), as well as secretary Ginny (Zelda Rubinstein, Poltergeist) and chief pathologist Carter (Kelly Connell).
Additionally, since so many of these crimes conclude in Rome's courthouse, the town's municipal judge, Henry Bone (Ray Walston, My Favorite Martian), and local defender-at-large, Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvush Finkel, Boston Public), make regular appearances.
At the beginning of his career, David E. Kelly had a staggering string of commercial and critical hits. In the late 1980s he was one of the creative forces behind the strongest years of L.A. Law; in 1990 he co-created Doogie Howser, M.D.; in 1992 he created Picket Fences; in 1994 he created Chicago Hope; in 1996 he created The Practice; and in 1997, he created Ally McBeal. Now keep in mind, Kelly wouldn't just whip up a concept and jump to the next project. He was heavily involved with each of these shows, and in the case of many, such as Picket Fences, wrote nearly all the scripts. And on top of all this, he married Michelle Pfieffer in 1993. During that same period of time my biggest accomplishment was beating Super Mario 64.
Though Picket Fences was far from Kelly's biggest commercial hit (its first season was the 80th highest rated show in the Nielson ratings) it may be, with the possible exception of Ally McBeal, his most beloved. And now finally, almost 15 years after its premier, Fox has released the first season on DVD. The season consists of the following 22 episodes spread out over six discs:
The pilot is nearly 90 minutes long, and all of that time is needed for a storyline that features every regular cast member. For a pilot, this episode surprisingly has the tone and spirit of the show completely down. A strange case of murder isn't what it seems, and the investigation is hindered badly by a cast of odd, befuddled characters, most notably prolific lawyer Douglas Wambaugh, who quickly emerges as one of the best television characters of all time.
Grade: B +
• "The Green Bay Chopper"
Another murder mystery, this one spawned when a young girl brings a severed hand to her school's show-and-tell. In Picket Fences' second episode, the sexual tension between Kenny and Maxine is already on a low simmer, but somehow Lauren Holly's asexual demeanor (a remarkable achievement greatly aided by a dowdy police uniform) and Mandylor's bland, smoldering performance make them the most tantalizing law enforcement couple other than Mulder and Scully.
As solid as the murder mystery episodes are, the show is strongest when the plots are allowed to drift into even more unconventional fare (yes, even more unconventional than a serial hand severer).
Grade: B +
• "Mr. Dreeb Comes to Town"
Offering a respite from Rome's murder sprees, a midget on a runaway elephant is discovered by the side of the highway. Michael J. Anderson (Twin Peaks) plays Peter Dreeb, and he's fantastic in this episode about animal rights and unconventional love.
Grade: A -
• "The Autumn of Rome"
By its fourth episode, Picket Fences really picked up steam. In a showcase for the invaluable Finkel, Joseph Wambaugh runs for mayor of Rome against the portly incumbent, and is shot by a disgruntled voter with a BB gun during a debate. This episode's intelligent, insightful, and quirky depiction of small town politics makes it one of the best of the season.
Probably the best scene in "The Autumn of Rome" is the one in which Wambaugh, while campaigning, entertains a small crowd with a hilarious and shockingly accurate song explaining the history and rationale for nuclear build-up amongst the world's superpowers. What is most amazing, though, is that two characters converse while Wambaugh sings, and the song ends up just being an amazing set piece. This goes to show how carefully constructed Picket Fences is, and the amount of creativity that goes into the show's relatively minor details.
Grade: A +
• "Frank the Potato Man"
Another fantastic premise here: a serial bather is terrorizing Rome. While families are away, someone breaks into homes, bathes in their bathtubs, ejaculates, and leaves without stealing anything. As strong a premise as this is, and as solid as this episode is, the story is a little too predictable and preachy to make it first-rate Picket Fences.
Grade: B +
• "Remembering Rosemary"
Another murder mystery, and another relatively weak episode. Keep in mind, even second rate Picket Fences is better than 90 percent of other dramas. Still, "Remember Rosemary" ends up being one of the weaker episodes of the season. Instead of enjoying the splendid eccentricity of Rome and its inhabitants, I instead focused on trying to spot the inevitable twist in the murder investigation. The twist was okay, but I can get the same kick from watching any of the Law & Order incarnations.
• "The Contenders"
"The Contenders" is another highlight of the first season. It features more great small town politics, with a tight three-way race for mayor after Jill, disappointed in both candidates, enters the race. With a plot similar to The Contender, a very underrated political drama, this episode also deftly depicts the toxic nature of American politics in general. But what makes this episode stand out is an especially strong subplot involving Kenny realizing his dream by going toe-to-toe with a former boxing champ in a charity match.
Another nice touch: Kenny's entrance music is the Peter Gunn theme music, which might be recognizable to us Gen-Xers as the theme to the old addictive arcade game Spy Hunter.
• "Sacred Hearts"
"Sacred Hearts" is almost entirely devoted to another murder mystery, this one involving an elderly woman who was smothered by an orange. The eventual conclusion is, as usual, odd, but at this point in the series the conflict and relationships between the show's main characters are what's most entertaining.
Grade: B -
One of the best episodes of the season, and also one of the season's most straightforward plots. Jill's father visits for Thanksgiving and brings along his 26-year-old fiancé. Jill is livid, and everyone else is befuddled, except for Jill's father, of course, who's having the time of his life. Kenny and Maxine share a Thanksgiving dinner and engage in some frank talk about the previously unspoken sexual tension between them. Obviously, this is not particularly eccentric (as least by Picket Fences' standards), but it is first-rate drama.
• "The Snake Lady"
Another murder mystery in Rome (at this point the township must have passed Washington, D.C. as the murder capital of America). As usual, lot of twists and turns; this one—involving a suspicious suicide—is better than most, but is still far more clever than profound. Special bonus points for giving Carter Pike a prominent role.
Grade: B +
An interesting episode that begins with the issue of religious displays in public school, and segues into transgender rights—a transition few shows could handle as deftly as Picket Fences. Bonus points for especially strong appearances by Wambaugh and the incomparable Judge Henry Bone.
Grade: A -
• "High Tidings"
Another high water mark of the first season. When 16-year-old Kimberly gets caught in bed with her 19-year-old boyfriend, Jimmy arrests the randy fellow and grounds his daughter until her 30th birthday. The episode proceeds to explore both the fairness of statutory rape laws, and the perils of teen sex in general. Obviously, the show handles these issues with irreverence, but thankfully also manages to be intelligent and fair to both sides.
• "Frog Man"
Michael Jeter (The Fisher King) earned a much-deserved Emmy nomination for his touching portrayal of the Frog Man, a delusional and violent man, who also happens to be a frog aficionado. This episode represents the best melding of crime and off-beat drama of the season, and not surprisingly it's not a whodunit, but a character study.
• "Bad Moons Rising"
One of the better murder mystery episodes of the year. "Bad Moons Rising" plays out like an episode of Law & Order, with a woman who killed her estranged husband pleading temporary insanity brought on by the onset of menopause. This is a great episode for Wambaugh, as well as Carter Pike. The murder mystery is nicely balanced by a subplot involving Matthew's onset of puberty.
• "Nuclear Meltdowns"
Refreshingly, "Nuclear Meltdowns" is one of the few law and order episodes that donÂ't involve a murder charge. Instead, it focuses on Kimberly and her best friend, whom she saw passionately kissing her own father. Another solid episode.
Grade: A -
• "The Body Politic"
The string of strong episodes comes to an end with this one. "The Body Politic" doesn't work nearly as well as the rest of the series because it sets up a moral quandary—this one a Terri Schiavo-like right-to-die case—that seems obvious from its construction what the eventual compromise will be. Instead of addressing an incredibly difficult moral question, David E. Kelly lets himself off easy.
Grade: B -
• "Be My Valentine"
"Be My Valentine" is an intriguing whodunit featuring guest turns from two great character actors: Kurtwood Smith (That 70s Show) and Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day). While the murder-mystery episodes aren't the show's strongest suit, this one's pretty good.
• "Fetal Attraction"
Though abortion is probably one of the biggest moral questions of our time, it often seems overwrought in drama. This episode seems to just go through the motions on both sides of the debate. It's competently done, but there's nothing extremely profound or interesting expressed here.
After a corpse full of radiation is discovered in Rome, Carter becomes convinced the victim may have been abducted by aliens. With the eccentric pair of Waumbaugh and Bone receive a lot of airtime (perhaps a little too much at this point), it's refreshing to get to know the quirky pathologist a little bit better.
Grade: A -
• "Rights of Passage"
After a developer gets the right the build a golf course over a Native American burial ground, members of the tribe barricade themselves inside the courthouse. The episode is a little unremittingly heavy for Picket Fences, and the subplot about midget bigotry seems pretty much tacked on.
• "Sugar and Spice"
In this episode Kimberly kisses a female classmate and her family and boyfriend respond with uncharacteristic outrage. Perhaps things have changed in the intervening 15 years since this episode was produced, but two teenage girls sharing a kiss hardly seems like the existential crisis its portrayed here.
Grade: B -
• "The Lullaby League"
This season finale is a bit sappy; with guest star Della Reese (Harlem Nights) playing Naomi Grand, a blues singer who collapses on stage while scatting with Zach (who's quite the trombone player). Jill saves Naomi's life by transplanting a pig liver, but after regaining consciousness, Naomi requests the liver be removed because it's undignified to have swine parts in her body. In a subplot, Maxine helps deliver the breeched baby of a woman wanted by the F.B.I. It's kind of troubling—though never discussed—that Maxine chose to attempt to deliver the baby instead of waiting for the ambulance.
All in all, the first season of Picket Fences is incredibly solid, which is especially impressive considering it's the show's first season. For those who have fond memories of watching the show while a teenager (like myself), you'll be relieved to find that the drama holds up. For those who've never seen an episode, I highly recommend you spend some time with this quirky bunch from Rome.
Fox has done a commendable job putting together the first season of the show. As far as I can tell, all the original music has been used and there is no dubbing of any actor's voices (I heard a rumor that Zelda Rubenstein's voice was dubbed due to a contractual dispute).
Though the show is over 15 years old, it holds up surprisingly well. Most of the moral issues it explored are still very prevalent in the 21st century, and in many cases the show's storylines seem prescient. Though many will disagree with some of the ethical stances the show takes, its irreverence and strong cast of eccentric characters will prevent any lingering feelings of animosity.
As the great Judge Henry Bone would say: Not Guilty! Now get of my courtroom!
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