Of Big Little Lies' 16 Emmy nominations, five are for acting: Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in limited series/TV movie lead actress, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern in supporting actress, and Alexander Skarsgard in supporting actor. If any of them win, they will join a very elite — though not small — group of Emmy champs: actors who have won for David E. Kelley projects.
Since 1987, 30 performers have won a total of 38 Emmys for Kelley shows. That includes the likes of Alfre Woodard, William Shatner, Sharon Stone, Mandy Patinkin, Michael Emerson, Holland Taylor, Jimmy Smits, Peter MacNicol, James Spader, Kathy Baker and Christine Lahti. No other writer-producer has come close to yielding that much hardware for his or her stars. To put it in perspective, Mad Men went 1-36 in acting, its sole triumph coming literally on its last shot: Jon Hamm in drama lead actor for the final season.
Kelley's success shouldn't be that surprising if you were a TV fan in the '90s, when he was at his most prolific and created some of the most successful, critically or commercially, shows in history. The '90s was peak Kelley and the Emmys couldn't get enough of him.
Emmys: See the full list of nominees
A former lawyer and a 10-time Emmy winner himself, Kelley got his start as a writer on L.A. Law in 1986. After he took over as executive producer for Steven Bochco in 1989, he won back-to-back writing Emmys and three straight awards for drama series. He followed it up with 14-time winner Picket Fences, which won drama series twice, as did The Practice, which grabbed 15 trophies during its run. In 1999, he became the first and still only producer to win drama and comedy series in the same year, when The Practice and Ally McBeal took home the respective prizes. Even his non-series winners collected a lot of statuettes: Chicago Hope had seven wins and The Practice spin-off Boston Legal nabbed five.
All of the aforementioned shows won at least two acting trophies. The Practice boasts the most wins — 13 awards for 13 different people (yes, that means the show's 15 wins were just for acting and drama series) — and holds the record for most victories in the guest races with nine (six for actor, three for actress); the series dominated the drama guest actor category for five consecutive years (1998-2002). With the exception of 1991 and 1997, Kelley produced at least one acting winner every year from 1987 through 2007, and his most recent one came in 2011, for Paul McCrane's guest appearance in Harry's Law. Drama guest actor and supporting actor are his most fruitful categories, with 10 wins in each (the former is across 10 people versus the latter's eight).
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Kelley's unparalleled Midas touch for actors can be attributed to one thing: his writing. One of TV's most masterful wordsmiths, he famously wrote a majority of his series' scripts by himself — sometimes for multiple shows at a time — longhand on a yellow legal pad at a clip of one draft every four days (two days if he was under a time crunch). That fast-paced rate did little to hinder his distinctive voice. Kelley has a penchant for snappy yet tense dialogue that engaged as much as it provoked. His shows were tonally different, though all had some degree of whimsy and quirk, but they were all workplace series about dedicated professionals that gave Kelley room to tackle social issues, and ethical and moral dilemmas (Picket Fences, The Practice and Boston Legal, particularly, never shied away).
The fact that most of his projects were legal series, or had a legal element like the engrossing legal/cop/family/political/crime/medical dramedy Picket Fences, allowed ample space for his trademark courtroom theatrics and stirring monologues from all sides. Under the old Emmy tape system, in which panels watched submitted episodes from nominees, this was a one-way ticket to Emmy gold. A rousing speech lets an actor act with a capital A, and Kelley perfected that form of Emmy bait.
He was also the king of creating memorable guest characters — also helped by legal shows having a rotating door of colorful serial killers, sociopaths and weirdos every week. One of his best was The Practice's Joey Heric (John Larroquette), a rich psychopath who murdered his lovers and relished in gaming the system to get away with it; Larroquette was twice nominated in guest and won once.
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Kelley lost some of his steam this century. Blame it on the quality (that volume and output would wear anyone out at some point) or the fractured TV landscape or the shift toward more subtextual dialogue in cable series. Outside of Boston Legal, Boston Public and Harry's Law, which probably would've lasted longer if it hadn't skewed so old, none of Kelley's shows lived longer than one season (Girls Club, The Wedding Bells, The Crazy Ones, Monday Mornings, anyone?) until Amazon renewed Goliath earlier this year. (Ironically, Goliath, a legal drama that won Billy Bob Thornton a Golden Globe in January, did not receive any Emmy nods.) And then there was his notorious Wonder Woman pilot that went nowhere.
Big Little Lies was his big TV comeback. Not counting the Wonder Woman pilot, the addictive adaptation of Liane Moriarty's bestseller marked the first time Kelley, who's nominated in writing, penned a TV project that wasn't an original creation. There were some beats that were right up his alley — small-town melodrama (murder!), serious issues (domestic abuse), Celeste (Kidman) used to be a lawyer! — and his sparkling, lived-in dialogue was on display, especially via busybody Madeline (Witherspoon). But perhaps what's most remarkable about his taut, tense scripts (it was originally supposed to be eight episodes, but Kelley decided the story was best told in seven) are the stretches of unsettling, haunting silence, like the final scene, that were just as, if not more, moving as his classic speeches, and let his stars show off their wide-ranging gifts.
All five nominated actors have stiff competition, namely Kidman and Witherspoon who count Feud: Bette and Joan stars and fellow Oscar winners Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon among their rivals. But between Kelley's track record, the stellar material he gave them and their inimitable performances outright, the David E. Kelley Emmy Winners Club is poised to expand this year.
The 69th Primetime Emmy Awards airs Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on CBS.
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