A Critical Analysis of Picket Fences:
Season 1, Episode 18
“The Body Politic”
After working on L.A. Law as a writer and story editor for five seasons, lawyer-turned-writer Dave E. Kelley wanted to focus on a show of his own. The show was an hour-long dramedy based around the family of the sheriff of the fictitious town of Rome, Wisconsin. CBS worked a deal out with Kelley and the first episode of Picket Fences aired on September 18, 1992. Combining high drama, low humor, controversial issues, and some of the most memorable plotlines and characters television has ever seen, Picket Fences ran for four seasons, winning fourteen Emmy awards and two Golden Globes. This paper serves as a critical analysis, defining and exploring how different aspects of Picket Fences worked together to create one of the best television shows of the last few decades.
THESIS AND LOGLINE
The thesis of the show can be found within the title. The white picket fence is a symbol associated with happy suburban living. It symbolizes the American Dream: a fulfilling job, a sizable stable income, and a nice house filled with a happy family. The basic theme of Picket Fences is that underneath all the guise of prosperity and happiness, life is weirder and a lot more complicated than people let on. It looks at where one person’s rights begin and another’s end, which is appropriate as fences are often used to mark boundaries. Ordinary people struggle with complicated ethical and moral issues every day and the answers are not always easy. David Lynch used the symbol of a picket fence ironically in his 1986 film Blue Velvet, which explored the dark underbelly of a suburban neighborhood. While the title of the show may be viewed as ironic, the show does not treat its content ironically. It creates real characters that are usually trying to do the right thing or to understand their own prejudices against others. The problem is that the “right thing” is not always clear.
The logline for the show is: an aging sheriff tries to keep the peace in a small town plagued by bizarre and violent crimes. As the sheriff, it is Jimmy’s job to keep the town under control and the focus of the show usually revolves around him and his family. While perhaps simplified, the logline does an adequate job of describing the basic premise of Picket Fences. The use of the word “bizarre” also prepares the audience for the use of unconventional plotlines.
CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS AND DIALOGUE
The show centers around the Brock family and several other members of the town of Rome, Wisconsin. The show features a very large number of complex characters. This section serves as a brief analysis of the characters and their dialogue.
Jimmy Brock is the town sheriff. Objective to a fault, Jimmy prides himself on his sense of morality and it is up to him to protect the town from the very real dangers of murderers, rapists, or other criminals. He is level headed and often has to save the town from its own paranoia, overreaction, and bigotry. Of course, there are a few times when he falls victim to these himself.
Jill Brock is Jimmy’s wife and the town doctor. Having the same moral pride as Jimmy, they often butt heads when they disagree on a specific topic. Many times, issues from their professional lives spill over into their personal lives, leaving them on opposite sides of a debate. Jill is as proud of her career as Jimmy is of his, which can also create problems.
The Brocks have three children. The oldest, Kimberly, is in high school and is the most liberal member of the Brock family. Matthew is their middle child. He is the instigator of the family, often getting himself and Zachary into trouble. Zachary is the youngest Brock child. He is the most innocent and maybe even the most thoughtful.
Maxine is a deputy and works under Jimmy. She is very intelligent and dedicated to her job, though she is also emotional and occasionally blows things out of proportion. Kenny is Maxine’s partner and his personality contrasts hers. He is a simple man of few words, always ready to take action. Working in close quarters throughout the series and even sometimes dating, Max and Kenny have unresolved sexual tension throughout much of the series.
Douglas Wambaugh is one of the local lawyers who takes any case he can get. Often crude and inappropriate, he is also a fantastic layer and does have a strong sense of morality beneath the perceived layers of filth. He is almost always the defense lawyer that goes against the DA in each episode.
Despite the wide variety of kinds of character, the dialogue of the show is realistic. All of the police, medical, and legal talk is authentic. Characters who are more educated often use larger words than those who are not. Certain characters, like Kenny, who are not great at expressing themselves with words, often use actions instead. Everything that the characters say or do is consistent with their personality and views, and, of course, the dialogue allows the audience to get closer to a certain character.
DESCRIPTION OF EPISODE
Episode 1-18 “The Body Politic” originally aired on February 5, 1993. The episode is pretty typical (if such a thing can be said) of Picket Fences. It deals with two complex moral issues that start in the Brocks’ professional lives, which spill over into the characters’ personal lives. Since the show is about moral issues from several points of view and often rather intricate, this section will be as succinct as possible while still preserving the complexity of the show.
The episode starts with Zachary’s elementary school class getting basic dental check-ups by Dr. Paymer. As Dr. Paymer puts his fingers in Zachary’s mouth, Zachary accidentally bites him. He immediately starts screaming at the kids and becomes very upset.
Sheriff Brock is told about the episode and decides he needs to talk to Dr.Paymer, who is also his family’s dentist. Jimmy tells him that that he knows he is gay and that with the incident at the school, he can only assume that Dr. Paymer is HIV-positive. He tells Jimmy that if he is uncomfortable with a dentist he feels is HIV-positive, he should find another dentist. Jimmy immediately talks to Jill who tells him that Dr. Paymer is indeed HIV-positive and that she could not say anything because of doctor-patient privilege. Jill explains that a medical board approved him to practice after his diagnosis and that there is minimal risk. Jimmy is livid that she would put her career over the safety of her family
Howard Buss, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, reports to Maxine that he saw his new neighbor take a body into his house during the night. Maxine doesn’t believe Howard but figures she should investigate regardless. When Mr. Bufel is reluctant to let her in the house she believes something is fishy. She obtains a warrant and they eventually find a woman hooked up to a bunch of machines with a medical team tending to her. The woman’s name is Cindy and she and is examined by Jill. It is found out that the woman is both brain dead and three months pregnant.
Jimmy calls the Mayor into his office to tell him about Dr. Paymer. He is on contract with the town for all the dental checkups with the school and the town employees. After the Mayor hears from Jimmy, he sees no choice but to end Dr. Paymer’s contract. Dr. Paymer is given the choice of being open about his HIV status or the termination of his contract. He declares that he cannot tell because it would be the end of his career.
Cindy’s mother comes into town and we learn that Mr. Bufel kidnapped her from the hospital after she was pronounced braindead after an accident. Since she has no brain activity she is medically declared dead, but her body and organs continue to function thanks to the use of the machines. Cindy’s husband wants her to have her baby. Her mother thinks it is a gross indignity to put her daughter through that and explains that Cindy did not want to be kept alive on machines. Cindy is moved to the hospital.
Tensions are high in the Brock house as Jill and Jimmy are at odds with each other. Both Dr. Paymer and Mr. Bufel employ the use of local lawyer Douglas Wambaugh. In the midst of it all, the town goes into a panic. Protestors begin gathering outside the Sheriff’s office and the courtroom. The American Civil Liberties Union represents both Dr. Paymer and Cindy’s mother.
Judge Bone says that her husband and mother’s opinions do not matter, it is only Cindy’s intent that matters. He receives a copy of the will and says he needs to look it over. Dr. Paymer starts his motion. Judge Bone tells Jill she will be called as his practicing physician. After which, the dentist is assaulted and sufferers a head wound. Jill goes to tend to his injuries, but with blood everywhere and no gloves available, she won’t touch him.
Judge Bone calls both Mr. Bufel and Cindy’s mother into his chambers to try to work it out. He reiterates that the baby is a miracle and that he cannot pull the plug. She reiterates that her daughter was a proud woman and she would not want to suffer the indignity of being a footnote in some medical text. Jill and Jimmy fight more. They realize that they have no trust for each other and admit that they have big problems.
At the trial, Jill testifies that statistically Dr. Paymer poses no significant threat and reminds everyone that she still sent her own children to him. Wambaugh reminds everyone that he was fired for not disclosing, not for being HIV-positive. He also says that a patient has a right to know that risk and decide if they want to take it: one slip up and someone dies. How could anyone justify not telling?
Jill apologizes to Jimmy and tells him that he did have a right to know. They realize that they both think their jobs are more important than the other’s. They agree that they cannot live without each other and need to start putting family first.
Judge Bone reiterates that the decision for Cindy had to be based solely on her wishes. While her will says that she does not want to be kept alive on machines, he noticed that she was also an organ donor. In which case, he believes she would want her organs to be used to give the miracle of life. He also lets Dr. Paymer keep his job. There is no law saying that he cannot practice or must reveal his condition to his patients, therefore, the termination was unfounded. He goes on to say that he poses no significant risk to his patients and he imagines the firing was just to get the word out in the first place. He tells him that while the fears and bigotry of HIV will probably outlive him, he believes Dr. Paymer should fight. That is really all he can do.
Throughout the episode there was a subplot involving Kenny dating twins. He had started dating the twins in a previous episode and he continues to do so here. The Mayor hears a woman complain and asks him to stop dating them as he has to be a role model for the community. The major eventually threatens his job, at which point Maxine jumps in and tells the major that he has no right to regulate someone’s personal life.
STRUCTURE AND NARRATIVE
Picket Fences uses a standard four act plot structure with a teaser, which was common for dramas in the ‘90s. “The Body Politic” teaser features Dr. Paymer going berserk on a group of school children. This serves to set up the episode, as well as to get the audience interested. Why did he get so upset over a little bite?
Act One establishes all of the plot lines and their potential problems. Dr. Paymer is a dentist and HIV-positive. Jill and Jimmy get into a fight over trust. Kenny is seen with the twins, which sets up the subplot with him and the Major. Maxine and Kenny investigate the neighbor and the act ends with them finding a woman hooked up to medical equipment, which begs lots of questions. Act breaks are important because they keep the viewer interested so that they do not change the channel on the commercial break. This one is sure to keep the viewer interested.
In Act Two, all the problems thicken up a bit and become more complex. We learn that Cindy is both legally dead and pregnant and her husband wants to have the baby. Her mother comes into town with a court order to terminate her life. Dr. Paymer is forced to disclose his condition or lose the contract and he vows to fight. Jimmy and Jill’s fight continues to heat up. Kenny is told to stop dating the twins.
In Act Three the plotlines reach a worst-case scenario point. Cindy’s husband and mother meet in court for the first time. They meet in chambers in an attempt to work things out and they both will not change their stance; there will be no peaceful resolution between them. After it’s publicly announced that Dr. Paymer is HIV-positive in court he is attacked and no one will touch him because of the blood. The mayor threatens Kenny’s job over the twins and Maxine steps in. Jill and Jimmy butt heads again, admitting to each other that they have big problems.
Act four is all resolution. Judge Bone decides that Cindy will be kept alive. After being cross-examined Jill realizes that she may have been wrong and she and Jimmy reconcile. Dr. Paymer gets to keep his job. There is nothing about Kenny and the twins, but that was a smaller subplot that was not resolved in this episode.
It is also worth noting how all of the plots and subplots of the episode fit together. The most obvious connection is the idea of authority getting involved in the issue of “bodies”. Dr. Paymer’s right to practice is called into question because of his HIV status. Both Cindy’s and her unborn baby’s right to live or die is being debated by Cindy’s husband and mother. The Mayor wants to tell Kenny whom he can and cannot date.
On another level, all the main plots deal with characters fighting for what is most important to them in life. Dr. Paymer with his job, which he feels is all he has left that is worth anything. Cindy’s husband fights for Cindy and his baby. Cindy’s mother is fighting for her daughter, but from a different perspective. The fight between Jimmy and Jill stems from Jimmy perceiving Jill as thinking that her job is the most important thing, putting it before the safety of him and their family.
The objectivity of the narrative is essential to the success of the show. The show could easily take sides: preach the truths of one side and demonize the other. Luckily, the show does not do that. It presents both sides fairly and in doing so challenges the audience to make their own decisions. It forces the audience to really consider both sides.
In “The Body Poetic” none of the choices that needed to be made were simple or easy. They were extremely complicated and valid arguments came from both sides. The audience can disagree with the choices made and since the narrative stayed objective they can be justified in this. They can even change their opinions throughout
David E. Kelley wrote or co-wrote almost every single episode of the first three seasons on the series. According to Ann Donahue, a writer-producer on the show, “[Kelley] always goes down the middle, and he is able to show each side. So, the first act you root for one side. The second act of the episode you root for the other side because you finally understand them. It’s always gray.” (Thompson 172)
TONE, GENRE, AND CONTINUITY
Picket Fences combines elements of both drama and comedy. While most episodes deal with deep ethical, theological, philosophical, or legal issues the show manages to throw in a few jokes in there, too. It manages to entertain and inform the audience while making them think, feel, and laugh. It is very tricky to this effectively.
In one episode, the town is a plagued by a “serial bather”, someone who breaks into houses and takes baths. While it starts off as a weird and funny plot, it quickly becomes very dark as we learn the bather is using the underwear of the women whose homes he enters to masturbate with. The tone can change quickly from drama to comedy and vice versa. While this may turn off some people, it’s one of the show’s strong points and makes it very true to life. The audience never quite knows what to expect. The show is often described as quirky because it is always a little off-beat, weird, and surprises are thrown at the audience constantly.
With Jimmy being the town sheriff, Jill the town doctor, and most of the episodes involving a court trial involving Mr. Wambaugh, Judge Bone, and the DA, the show can be a cop, medical, or legal dramedy anytime that it wants to. Since the Brock family is at the heart of the series, it can be a family dramedy, too. It often alternates between all of
these. Sometimes it is all four at once. This leaves a lot of room for the kinds of stories that the show tells.
Robert J. Thompson sees this at one of the show’s strength. Since Picket Fences can pretty much tell any story it wants without breaking its own boundaries, he compares it to the anthology series of the 1950s. He believes that by combining the anthology form with the serial form, it becomes more versatile than either one. Audiences get to see characters they know and love react to these difficult issues week after week. Of course, the fact that so many different issues are played out in the town of Rome does become unbelievable after a while. It seems that this town has been subjected to every kind of controversial issue or weird happening, but it makes sense if the audience is willing to ignore the difficult issues they have already faced in previous episodes. (Thompson 172-3)
In concrete terms, it is a serialized series. While many individual problems are closed by the end of each episode, there are many references and plotlines that extend throughout a particular season, or the entire series. As mentioned above, because of the diversity of the kinds of stories that is it allowed to tell, it exists as a kind of a hybrid between an anthology series and a serialized series.
REPRESENTATIONS AND OTHERNESS
With a quick glance, it’s easy to write the core cast off as status quo. The Brock family is white, Christian, upper-middle class, and straight. The same is true for the majority of the residents of Rome, Wisconsin. By creating a kind of slice of “typical” America at the base of the show, it is able to explore the feelings and reactions of the mainstream when those who are different or “others” come into town or make demands.
We will take a look at the representations of the core cast and then talk about how the concern for “others” lies at the heart of the show.
As far as race, the majority of the core cast, as well as the population of Rome, Wisconsin is white. In season two, John Littleton, a black man, becomes the DA and is featured in almost every episode until he leaves the show in season four. The show explores the reality of being a black man in a mostly white community. From dating to making friends, John faces challenges and prejudice simply because his skin color is different from the majority of other people in Rome.
As a whole, most of the residents of Rome are Christian. There seems to be a fair mix of Protestant and Catholic. The show spends a lot of time exploring what the churches are doing right, as well as wrong. Douglas Wambaugh is Jewish and through him, the show explores the Jewish perspective. With the core cast being Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, the show manages to show the prejudices held against each group, as well as the prejudices that these particular groups hold against others. It is also worth noting that later in the series Jimmy considers himself to be agnostic, which to this day is unheard of on network television.
Money does not seem to be an issue for any of the core cast. Most of them are doctors, lawyers, or public employees and they all seem to be doing well for themselves financially. Where sexuality is concerned, all of the core cast are straight. The Brocks’ eldest daughter, Kimberly, experiments with lesbianism in one episode in season one. However, aside from that incident, she has only been interested in dating men. The creators admitted that that particular storyline was simply used for a ratings boost.
While the core cast and town of Rome itself more or less meets the status quo, each individual episode usually brings with it a kind of “other” that acts as a catalyst, which causes conflict in the town. In “The Body Politic” the main “other” is a man who is both gay and HIV-positive. We are made to understand the concerns of the “status quo” as well as “the other”. While the show champions against bigotry, it shows that both sides have valid arguments, or at least explains where they are coming from. It explores how the people of the town may have prejudices against an “other” but also how the “other” may have prejudices of their own. No one is entirely wrong or right and nothing is simple or black and white. Regardless of a person’s stance, it is important that their opinions are not based on fear or bigotry.
Almost every kind of “otherness” has been explored in the show at one time or another. There have been episodes based around issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion, poverty, homelessness, physical disability, mental disability, body shape, gender identity; the list goes on and on. The show looks at the thin line where one person’s rights begin and another’s end, giving a voice to many kinds of people who have never really been heard before by a national television audience.
RATINGS, DEMOGRAPHICS, AND EXPORTABILITY
During its first season, Picket Fences ranked in the lower half of the Nielsen TV ratings. Its second season ranked number 61 out of 118 series that were scheduled regularly. It stayed roughly in the same spot for season three and was picked up for a fourth season. Kelley, who wrote or co-wrote almost every episode in the first three seasons only stayed on as a Creative Consultant for the fourth season, so he could work on other projects. As such, the show suffered a major loss in quality and was not picked up for a fifth season. The show won the Emmy for best drama for its first two seasons. The show was most popular among “younger, urban viewers.” (Thompson 167-68)
It was exported in canned form to a variety of other countries, including Mexico, Poland, France, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Germany, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, France, and Denmark (IMDB-Picket Fences-Release Dates). Since the show is so peculiar and already a hybrid of different genres and tones, selling it as a format may have been difficult. However, it works well as an export because many of the issues and situations explored are indeed universal. Since the narrative always plays the middle it can still be enjoyed by cultures that have moral codes that are different from those in America.
I feel that Picket Fences meets the criteria for a good television show. It creates memorable and unique storylines involving a large number of mostly likable characters. It not only informs and entertains its audience, but it encourages them to consider all sides of very deep and complicated issues, perhaps even challenging the views they already hold. The show was daring enough to explore a large number of controversial issues, many of which are still considered taboo today. It gave a national voice to many kinds of people who were disenfranchised and voiceless. It managed to do all this without taking itself too seriously or becoming preachy. Not to mention the fact that it was often quite funny and always fun to watch.
At the end of “The Body Politic” Judge Bone gives a stirring speech about the fear and bigotry associated with those that are HIV-positive and sees no reason that the fight against it should not start right there and then. The episode ends with those in the courtroom contemplating silently as they absorb what he said and the power that it carried. Things are very complicated and there is thinking to be done. This is Picket Fences. This is Rome, Wisconsin. This is us.
“Picket Fences (1992) Release Dates.” The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com, Inc,
n.d. Web. 1 May 2013. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Thompson Robert J. Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER. New York: Continuum, 1996. Print.