'Fences': A CBS main man is a big fan

November 14, 1993|By James Endrst | James Endrst,Hartford Courant

If you haven't seen "Picket Fences," the show that swept the drama category at this year's Emmy Awards, don't worry. You're not out of it.

As a matter of fact, you're part of the mainstream.

Now in its second season on CBS, "Picket Fences" would seem to have everything a series could ask for -- a top producer, critical acclaim, the medium's highest honor.

Everything, that is, except viewers.

But the humor-laced drama about life in the small but unusually eventful town of Rome, Wis., has one very important fan: CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky.

"Picket Fences," says Mr. Sagansky, is his favorite show. "I love reading the scripts, and I love watching the show," says the man who pulls most of CBS' prime-time programming strings.

Though "Picket Fences," even with a major post-Emmy public relations push, ranks 73rd of 97 shows in the latest Nielsens -- due in part to its miserable Friday-night-at-10 time slot -- it's still doing better than it was last year. And Mr. Sagansky says he expects the show to be on the air three or four more seasons.

"Nine times out of 10, quality television gets the audience it deserves," says Mr. Sagansky, adding, that when it comes to the drama form, "it doesn't get any better than this."

So why, after the Emmy sweep -- which included awards for lead actors Tom Skerritt, who plays Sheriff Jimmy Brock, and Kathy Baker, who plays his wife and town doctor Jill Brock -- isn't "Picket Fences" building a bigger audience?

"I think we haven't been effective in getting the word out," says Mr. Sagansky. "I'm not talking about the amount of air time [spent promoting] it but really the quality of the message -- which I think has improved this year."

Pigeonholed, perhaps unfairly, by some critics as the next "Twin Peaks," "Picket Fences" has pushed a lot of bizarre emotional buttons in the name of entertainment.

In this season's opener, for example, the mayor of Rome blew away a carjacker at point-blank range, only to die later himself, the victim of spontaneous human combustion.

It was a signature bit of black humor from executive producer David E. Kelley, former executive producer of "L. A. Law" (and the man who wrote the Rosalind Shays character out of that series by tossing her down an elevator shaft).

For some viewers, it's all a bit much.

To Mr. Skerritt ("A River Runs Through It"), Mr. Kelley is "a gift" to television.

"I think the audience deserves 'Picket Fences,' " says Mr. Skerritt. He describes the show as one that treats those who watch with respect but dramatically "deals with possibility, not necessarily probability."

As strange as some of the goings-on are in Rome (viewers have been treated to story lines featuring a serial bather, a death in a dishwasher and a male victim of date rape -- to name just a few), Mr. Skerritt says many of the issues, if not events, addressed in the hour are straight out of the newspaper.

"The improbability is that they all happen in this one town," he allows.

Ms. Baker says episodes this year are far more grounded in reality than last season's, though there will still be "that quirky element every now and then."

In no way, however, has Mr. Kelley been asked to tone down or otherwise alter the show to make it more accessible to a broader audience, says Mr. Sagansky.

"Everything that David's done creatively on this show has been his own decision," he says.

"This show is about the ambiguity of the sort of ethical dilemmas all Americans face. It's not about small-town life. . . . Nor is it about a quirky little town in the 'Twin Peaks' mold."

But that perception remains in the minds of many potential viewers, which is why Mr. Sagansky says, "In the end, this is a word-of-mouth show [where] we've got to rely on the kindness of strangers."

Almost everyone associated with the show, however, says the biggest problem is the time slot, putting "Fences" up against ABC's powerhouse "20/20."

"None of us really want that hour," says Mr. Skerritt, who says 9 p.m. on just about any other night would be better.

Mr. Sagansky, however, says the show will stay put and he feels it is performing well under the circumstances -- even though its ratings have shown only marginal improvement compared with last year's.

"It may be that this show is not ever the highest-rated drama on television," says Mr. Sagansky. "It's a question of can it get enough of an audience so that we can keep it on the air. And I think the answer to that . . . seems to be yes."

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