30 Years Ago Today: The Premiere of “Picket Fences”

September 18, 1992 was the premiere date of the CBS TV show Picket Fences.

Believe it or not, I wasn’t particularly aware of this program until I interviewed the delightful Fyvush Finkel shortly before he passed away a few years back. When it aired in the early ’90s, I was going to college, working, then got married (to a partner who hated most mainstream television) and had a baby son, so those years and several afterward were what I call my “TV drought”. I’m still catching up! I didn’t discover the joys of this offbeat show until the recent Covid pandemic, when binging television came into its own as its own distinct art form, along with gourmandizing, zooming, and screaming in your basement. Once considered a “passive” activity, watching television is now a high intensity sport akin to triathlon racing and the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest.

Anyway, I was delighted to discover that this show reminded me a great deal of two other programs I loved at the time (and somehow did manage to watch during their original runs), Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, both of which launched in 1990. It also has elements of The Andy Griffith Show, The X Files (which came later), and straight cop shows and melodramas. Quite a juggling act! It was the creation of David E. Kelley, whose remarkable career has also included producing L.A. Law, and creating or co-creating Doogie Howser, M.D., Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Big Little Lies, and Big Sky, along with the highly entertaining movie Lake Placid (1999). Kelley seems to specialize in selling outrageous concepts with a straight face and making them work in the face of all conventional wisdom.

Picket Fences is set in a small Wisconsin town that is like a magnet for everything weird, crazy, or over-the-top melodramatic. Sometimes it’s played for comedy, sometimes for tears, but it’s always outlandish. A circus elephant gets stolen. A character dies from spontaneous human combustion. Body parts show up. But things like prejudice and the Holocaust are dealt with, and the Constitution is revered, both through the (often self-serving) efforts of ambulance chasing local defense attorney Fyvush Finkel, and the more serious, tortured local sheriff, played by the quietly awesome Tom Skerritt.

The crazy writing is helped along (sold) by a magical cast that includes the lovable Kathy Bates as the town doctor who happens to be the sheriff’s wife; Ray Walston as the stern, no-nonsense judge; Don Cheadle (in later seasons) as the D.A.; deaf actress Marlee Matlin as one of the town’s many mayors; Zelda Rubinstein (the Little Person from Poltergeist) as the police dispatch officer; and Dabs Greer (the preacher from Little House on the Prairie), stunt cast as a local priest. Some recurring roles are played by Leigh Taylor-Young (of I Love You Alice B. Toklas and Soylent Green) as a mayor with a past in the porn industry, the ubiquitous Richard Masur who exits the show by way of decapitation, Ann Guilbert of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and a ten year old Elisabeth Moss! Skerrit’s quirky, precocious children are played by Holly Marie Comb, Justin Shenkarow, and Adam Wylie. Oh and he has two deputies: a foxy one (Lauren Holly) and a dumb one (Costas Mandylor), who somehow add up to both Beatrice and Benedick and Barney Fife.

As with the two shows it so resembles, Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, one of Picket Fences’ strengths, it’s open-ended willingness to go ANYWHERE with a story, read as tonal inconsistency to many mainstream critics and audiences, though it managed to hang in there for a four year run. Admittedly it can be jarring to mix absurdism, realism, tragedy, weird horror, and slapstick all up in one Jell-o Salad of Americana. But this peculiar little subgenre has always been right up my street.