When you”re blessed with more natural talent in your chosen field than all but a handful of human beings in history, it”s easy to get bored and start goofing around. You see it with athletes all the time. Sometimes, they”ve already established their Hall of Fame bonafides by the time they start doing weird things, like that season when Wilt Chamberlain decided he was going to lead the league in assists (and did), just to prove he could, or when Michael Jordan quit the NBA to chase after curve balls in the baseball minors for two years.
A lot of the time, though, you”ll see a player decide that it”s all coming so easy to them that they don”t have to work as hard at the fundamentals, and that people would rather see something flashy than something effective. Everyone said Vince Carter had the tools to be the next Jordan, and Carter could dunk with anyone, but he never had Jordan”s focus, and never became as great as we thought he could be.
This isn”t limited to sports, of course. Many of the best writers in TV history have had trouble getting out of their own way, whether it”s David Milch disappearing down a metaphysical rabbit hole on “John From Cincinnati” or Aaron Sorkin writing women on “The Newsroom.”
But in terms of a disappointing Vince Carter-esque talent-to-production ratio, the champ may be David E. Kelley, whose new TNT medical drama “Monday Mornings” debuts tonight at 10.
Kelley”s among the most gifted wordsmiths and dramatists to ever grace the medium. In terms of fictional oratory – Kelley”s a former lawyer who has mostly specialized in courtroom dramas – there are Kelley and Sorkin at the top, and then there”s everyone else. When you watch a Kelley-run show when the pistons are all firing – his early days running “L.A. Law,” “Picket Fences,” “Chicago Hope” or “The Practice” in particular – it”s easy to convince yourself this is one of the best things to ever air on television.
The problem is that Kelley seems to gets bored, quickly, and begins piling on sensational plot twists and quirky comedy – within a season, “Ally McBeal” was nothing but a collection of behavioral tics with occasional musical interludes – just to keep himself interested. And his shows always suffer for it. In its first couple of seasons, “The Practice” was a lean, mean work of art, but pretty soon there were serial killers and odd hijinks and eventually the whole thing morphed into “Boston Legal,” which mixed Kelley-style wackiness with courtroom scenes that were mainly an excuse for James Spader to deliver political position papers.
His previous series, “Harry”s Law,” felt almost like a parody of a Kelley show (among other pieces of calculated weirdness, in the early days, its main character practiced law in an abandoned designer shoe store while her assistant continued to sell the shoes), though it rated very well among older viewers, many of whom no doubt enjoyed seeing gray-haired Kathy Bates raising hell in court.
With “Monday Mornings,” though, it feels like Kelley woke up one day and decided to remind everybody what he could do when he stopped playing the fool. It”s not perfect, but it”s easily the most restrained – and satisfying – Kelley series since those first couple of years of “The Practice.”
For the first time in a while (unless you count his embarrassing, never-aired “Wonder Woman” pilot for NBC), Kelley”s working with source material: the novel of the same name by CNN”s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who works as a producer on this series. The setting is a fictional hospital, Chelsea General, and the focus on the surgeons who work there: Alfred Molina as the all-knowing chief of surgery, Ving Rhames as the head of trauma, Jamie Bamber and Jennifer Finnigan as a pair of cocky neurosurgeons, Keong Sim as a surgeon from Korea; and Bill Irwin as an obnoxious transplant specialist, among others. We follow their cases, and at times their personal lives, but the heart of the series are the M&M conferences (for Morbidity & Mortality), where the surgeons all gather to discuss the bad outcomes and how they might have been avoided.
(The cast, in other words, includes Doctor Octopus, Marcellus Wallace, Apollo Adama and Mr. Noodle. Not bad.)
It”s in the M&M conference room where you can see why Kelley was drawn to this show. He”s done medical series before (including “Doogie Howser, M.D.”), but the courtroom has always been where he and his characters felt the most comfortable. Here, he”s essentially making a legal drama where all the characters happen to have medical license, and where Molina gets to act as both prosecutor and judge, while the other surgeons are left to speak up in their own defense.
It”s a great role for Molina – better, for instance, than when he actually played a district attorney on “Law & Order: Los Angeles” – whom Kelley and director Bill D”Elia wisely allow to work in his native English accent. His character rarely rises from his seat in the M&M room, yet his position, his passion, and his facility with language make him tower over every other doctor in the conference, even though most of them are being played by actors with their own impressive resumes. (It”s a pleasure, for instance, to hear Kelley”s words spoken in the rich cultured tones of Irwin, playing the token jerk that every Kelley workplace show must have.)
Though D”Elia gets a bit cute in some of his visual choices – the doctors are frequently crowned in halos, to make the whole God complex thing more overt – on the whole, “Monday Mornings” is a very buttoned-down, classical hospital drama. (Which makes it an ideal fit for TNT, which has built a brand on making the kinds of shows most of the broadcast networks stopped doing 15 or 20 years ago.)
The cases occasionally seem macabre (in one episode, Irwin”s character is shocked to discover that an organ donor missing half his skull isn”t as dead as he seems) but never to the point where it feels like Kelley is just trying to hold our attention. And there are some humorous moments (the other doctors like to gamble on how quickly Rhames can, Sherlock Holmes-style, diagnose a case that”s stumped the rest of them), but not usually in a way that feels forced.
And because I wasn”t spending so much time dwelling on Kelley”s weaknesses, it became easy to be reminded of how great his strengths are. There”s nothing in “Monday Mornings” that isn”t formulaic – the tearful wife pleading with the doctor to save her husband, the doctor who cares so much that he keeps doing CPR long after he”s clearly lost the patient, etc. – but it”s well-executed formula, from a writer demonstrating a well-honed command of structure and dialogue, rather than trying to impress us with some outrageous character traits.
The Korean doctor – whose limited grasp of English goes hand in hand with a brusque, unsentimental bedside manner to make all his patients (and some colleagues) uncomfortable – walks the knife edge between Good Kelley and Bad Kelley. But Sim gives an understated performance, and the writing in the early going makes the man less a cultural stereotype than a doctor show archetype (fitting comfortably alongside Dr. Craig on “St. Elsewhere” and Dr. Benton on “ER”) with a different accent.
I give every new David E. Kelley show a chance – yes, even “girls club” and “The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.” – because I want to see what he”s capable of achieving at his best, even as I know he”ll inevitably give in to his worst impulses. It”s entirely possible that “Monday Mornings” goes full cartoon within a season. But at the start, it”s the show I keep hoping Kelley makes each time I watch one of his pilots.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org