By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Another 4-year-old series, albeit one that reached only a fraction of The Sopranos’ audience, David E. Kelley’s Boston Public (Fox, Fridays at 9 p.m.) recently vanished from the network lineup, having regularly finished fourth in its time slot since moving from Mondays to Fridays at the start of this season. According to published reports, the high school drama is merely “on hiatus”; in short, it’s been suspended but not yet expelled. But production has been shut down, and for those of us with a decent lay of the TV landscape (or an idea of the direction in which the career of the once-prolific Mr. Kelley has recently been going), it’s as clear as the graffiti scrawled on the boys’ bathroom wall: BOSTON PUBLIC R.I.P.
This comes as no great surprise; even on Mondays, the series was never really more than a lead-in to Ally McBeal. There were also more cast changeovers in four seasons than some shows weather in 14, and a penchant for bombastic melodrama that more closely resembled the workings of a daytime soap opera than the day-in, day-out rigors of public education. In the midst of it all, though, there resided a core group of actors fiercely committed to exploring the trials and tribulations of those who can do, but choose instead to teach. And on those occasions when the material rose to their level, they delivered some of the best (and least heralded) work anywhere on television. (Even on an off day, the show tackled social issues that would never make it on to an episode of CSI and featured a host of black actors cast in roles that were color-blind without being color-ignorant.)
I’m talking about the glorious Loretta Devine, as social-studies teacher Marla Hendricks — a combustible force of compassion and chemical imbalance; Kelley regular Fyvush Finkel, as the way-past-retirement-age and proudly un-P.C. Harvey Lipshultz; and Sharon Leal as honey-voiced music teacher Marylin Sudor, whose beautiful façade masked an unpleasant past. Most of all, I’m talking about the inspired pairing of Chi McBride as principal Steven Harper and Anthony Heald as his terminally underappreciated vice principal, Scott Guber. Separately, both actors were extraordinary, with Heald (best known to audiences as the conniving psychiatrist from The Silence of the Lambs) transforming what began as a caricature of a neurotic, self-loathing, anal-retentive Jew into a richly textured portrait of an unlikely, Harvey Pekar–worthy Everyman. Together, sharing the screen either confrontationally or in comradeship, they could be something even better than that.
With the demise of Boston Public, that leaves the revamped The Practice as the only Kelley series left on the air. But Kelley has long seemed television’s ever-watchful conscience, and one pauses at the thought of what the medium may become without him.
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