PICKET FENCES

For Hicksflicks.com, April 1, 2013

"Picket Fences" (1992-96, CBS) was a controversial but critically acclaimed TV comedy-drama that blended traditional law-enforcement melodramatics with a kind of "Twin Peaks" sensibility, as the brainchild of producer/writer David E. Kelley (whose credits include "L.A. Law," "The Practice," "Ally McBeal" and "Boston Legal," among others). The show followed the eccentric goings-on of the quirky residents of Rome, Wis., with married couple Sheriff Jimmy Brock and Dr. Jill Brock (Tom Skerritt and Kathy Baker) at the center of things. As the local sheriff and town physician, respectively, they tried each week to make sense of the bizarre occurrences and wacky characters they encountered.

One of those controversial episodes, titled "Nuclear Meltdowns" and written by Kelley, originally aired Jan. 22, 1993, and contained three plot threads. The primary storyline focuses on an apparent incestuous situation in a Latter-day Saint household. A young girl named Jody Elyse (Bess Meyer), a close friend of Jimmy and Jill's teenage daughter Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs), visits Dr. Brock in the opening pre-credits scene and is told that she's pregnant. "I can't be pregnant," Jody says in disbelief.

Jill discusses tries to lay out her options, "Aborton, adoption, motherhood — all these choices belong to you."

After the credits, Jody is discussing the situation with Kimberly, who is outraged that Jody has kept from her the fact that she's sexually active. "What are you going to do?" Kimberly asks. "I'm gonna have it," Jody says, "what else can I do?" Then she adds, "You know my father — the Latter-day Saint."

Kimberly is aghast. "You're a senior in high school, what are you gonna to do with a baby?" But Jody replies, "Abortion is a mortal sin in our church, plus which, my father would disown me."

Kimberly approaches her mother but Jill says she can't do anything unless Jody comes to her. Kimberly observes, "It's like she's been brainwashed. She's not even considering the consequences, she's just thinking about her religion." Her mother explains it would be wrong to steer Jody toward an abortion, but Kimberly protests: "She's 16!"

Kimberly is also curious about how Jody got pregnant. "She's so straight. She would never even touch a cigarette or a drink," then adding, "She's never even been with a boy. … Something's not right here."

Later, when Kimberly goes to Jody's house, Jody's mother Lisanne (Greta Lambert) invites her in, and Kimberly heads upstairs. But outside Jody's room, she listens in as Jody and her father Michael (Kevin Beghe) discuss the situation. "It's obviously God's way, honey," Michael says. "What happens, happens in His wisdom, and we just have to accept it." Then, Kimberly peeks in to see Jody and Michael kissing romantically, full on the mouth. When Michael leaves, Kimberly confronts Jody: "Is your father the father of your baby?" An argument ensues and Kimberly blurts out, "If your father is molesting you. …" But Jody interrupts, telling Kimberly to shut up, and saying she's got it all wrong. "He's not molesting me — there's been no abuse," Jody says. "We've chosen to love each other."

When Kimberly reveals all this to her mother, she tells Jimmy, who wants to arrest Jody's father immediately. Like Jody, Michael insists they have it all wrong, and that his privacy is being invaded. He also threatens to sue. When Kimberly agrees to testify, Michael is arrested. Jody begs Kimberly not to testify but to no avail. And in a pre-trial hearing, defense attorney Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvush Finkel) represents Michael before Judge Henry Bone (Ray Walston). Wambaugh immediately asks for dismissal on religious grounds, and explains that Jody is not Michael's daughter — but his wife! And she's not 16; she's 18.

"Who the hell is that woman sitting behind him?" the judge asks, pointing to Jody's "mother."

"That's Lisanne Elyse, also his wife," Wambaugh explains. "My client is a Mormon, your honor. That's why I raised the issue of religious freedom."

The judge puts his head in his hand, wipes his face and then looks up: "Chambers. Everybody. Now."

In the judge's office, Michael says, "We lied because of he law. Plus, she wanted to enroll in high school, and it, uh, seemed the best way."

Lisanne adds, "I love her too. We're a family. Just because you can't accept our faith."

"Wait a minute," the judge says. "Mormons don't practice polygamy anymore. The church has condemned it."

"The church was forced to condemn it, by federal law, otherwise the whole religion would have been banned." Michael says. "There's still a lot of Mormons that believe in polygamy — and I'm one of them." Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, Jody is trying to explain things to Kim, who is still incredulous. "You're 18," Kim says, "you're a Mormon — and you're married." "It may not be a typical home," Jody says, "but there's a lot of love and support — not a lot of families have that."

In chambers, Judge Bone tells the lawyers to plead the case out, to prevent Wambaugh from wasting tax dollars by taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Let them live in a common-law union, if they want, he says, adding, "The law against polygamy was drafted in the 1800s, when the legislators had a very strict interpretation of ‘family.' That interpretation is no longer valid … Maybe polygamy won't be embraced, but the traditional concept of ‘family' in this country no longer has meaning."

For members of the Mormon Church, there are several aspects of this show that are troubling. Despite Judge Bone's comment about the Mormon Church condemning polygamy, the characters refer to themselves repeatedly as ‘Mormons.' In truth, they can't be members of the Mormon Church and practice polygamy — the church is quick to excommunicate such parties. And while it's possible they could be members of another church, one of the many break-off sects once affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, other churches do not refer to their members as "Mormons." Then there's the problem of those who may watch the episode but not finish it and are left with the impression that incest is the problem here, and that the perpetrator is identified as LDS.

In addition, two subplots are intricately woven into the episode in a way that parallels the main story — both more comical in nature, but lending a condescending air to the proceedings. One has to do with a strange religion that sacrifices animals — and a member of that religion who steals his neighbor's pet duck to use at the altar. Another is about a Rome deputy (Costas Mandylor) who strikes up a romance with twin sisters — and dates both of them together! Thus, we have another religion in ridicule and another "polygamous" relationship.

All of this was quite troubling to the LDS Church when the program was scheduled to air, and two Mormon-owned CBS affiliates at the time — KSL in Salt Lake City and KIRO in Seattle — declined to air the episode. That decision caused quite a brouhaha, with Kelley himself calling it "censorship" and "prior restraint," prompting television critics and industry trade journals across the country to chime in. Even USA Today got into the act.

At the conclusion of this "Picket Fences" episode — that is, after the final commercials and all of the end credits, including the 20th Century Fox Television logo and fanfare — came this five-second written disclaimer on the screen: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day (sic) Saints, sometimes called the Mormon Church, does not permit nor condone polygamy — a practice the church abolished in 1890."

To put a disclaimer as a tag at the end of this episode, however — especially after the credits — was too little too late. Even disclaimers about content, or which state that a TV-movie is a "true story," are shown at the front of most shows. And it should be noted that the DVD release of the show's first season, which includes this episode, does not have the disclaimer.

Interestingly, in a Christmas 1997 episode of "Ally McBeal," creator/producer/writer David E. Kelley again tackled the subject of a man with two wives, this time in the story of an attorney attempting to legalize his union with the two women he lives with and who have born his children. In the end, this story, more or less, reaches the same conclusions as Kelley's earlier "Picket Fences" episode, especially regarding the evolving nature of the American "family" without any Mormon element.