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We need a break from Kelley’s shows

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David E. Kelley

David E. Kelley

A lot of observers have questioned whether it's time for the "Star Trek" franchise to take a break. If, after hundreds of episodes, it ought to at least go on sabbatical and recharge its batteries.

I'd make the same argument for David E. Kelley shows. A one-time TV superman, Kelley has clearly demonstrated that he's run out of ideas.

He did great work on "L.A. Law" and "Doogie Howser" before creating some of the best TV of the '90s — "Picket Fences," "Chicago Hope," "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," which all started strong.

But Kelley has been on the downhill slide. "Snoops" didn't last a whole season. "Boston Public" isn't up there with his earlier works. The derivative "girls club" lasted only two episodes last season.

And "The Practice" has became painfully boring and repetitive. The past few seasons have seen Kelley repeating plotlines he wrote almost two decades ago on "L.A. Law."

So it's no surprise that Kelley's new show, "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire" is weak. And that the overhaul of "The Practice" didn't work.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, "Brotherhood" (tonight at 9 on CBS/Ch. 2) is more than a bit reminiscent of "Picket Fences." The series revolves around three thirty- and fortysomething brothers in a small New England town.

Hank (Randy Quaid) is the town sheriff. And he punches out a citizen in the show's opening moments. Garret (John Carrol Lynch) is the town mayor. And he's got a problem when his ex-mistress' husband kills himself. And Waylon (Chris Penn) is the chronically unemployed youngest brother.

They've all got wives (played by Mare Winningham, Ann Cusack and Elizabeth McGovern) and families and big problems. But the show never engages viewers enough to make you care. Kelly is trying so hard to be quirky that his characters seem like creations, not like real people.

He's got a spectacular cast. And he wastes them on stories he's done better before.

As for "The Practice," his excuse for dropping half the cast was that all their characters had been played out. While it's true that characters do end up at dead ends, it's because of the way they're written.

I'm certainly not going to deny that bringing in new cast members can bring new life to a show. Just look at "Law & Order." But new characters with the same old writing isn't much of an improvement.

Judging by the first new episode of "The Practice" (Sunday, 9 p.m., ABC/Ch. 4), that's what's happening. James Spader joins the cast as Alan, an "ethically challenged" attorney who embezzled from his previous firm. Which isn't greatly different from how Jimmy (returning cast member Michael Badalucco) joined the firm.

Even the two cases in Sunday's episode — a woman who killed a drug dealer and a man (Chris O'Donnell in the latest bit of stunt casting) accused of killing his pregnant wife — look a lot like stories we've seen before. More than once.

Kelley still insists on doing most of the writing himself, but he needs to hire other scribes and let them take his shows in new directions.

Otherwise, he and the shows are headed in just one direction — straight down.

E-MAIL: pierce@desnews.com