A Man in Full: David E. Kelley needs to stop the churn

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
A Man in Full is streaming on Netflix
A Man in Full is streaming on Netflix Credit: Netflix/Mark Hill

Can someone please check if David E. Kelley is OK?

Since the 1980s, Kelley’s name has been synonymous with American TV, having created some of its most iconic series including Doogie Howser, Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope and The Practice.

He’s always been prolific but lately, Kelley has been off his game. He’s doing way too much.

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Like any great practitioner of his craft, he was able to shift with the seismic changes in his industry and moved away from the US broadcast model of 22-episode seasons to the short-run, often miniseries, format of streaming.

And while he often had overlapping shows in his heyday (Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal and The Practice were on at the same time), those were relatively procedural shows that could almost be set-and-forget as long as you had a good writers room.

What seems to be happening now is Kelley is trying to match his previous output by episode count and is churning out shows with different stories and vibes and most of them are either middling or bad.

A Man in Full premiere.
A Man in Full premiere. Credit: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for Netflix/Jeff Kr

Since 2016, Kelley has created 14 streaming series or miniseries. One was brilliant (Big Little Lies, but only its first season), three were pretty good (Mr Mercedes, Anatomy of a Scandal and Love & Death), most were mediocre (Lincoln Lawyer, Big Shot) and some were absolutely dreadful (The Undoing).

The latest is A Man in Full, a six-part miniseries that, on paper, should work. Kelley wrote all the episodes, it’s an adaptation of a Tom Wolfe novel, and it has a bumper cast including Jeff Daniels, Diane Lane, Lucy Liu, Bill Camp and William Jackson Harper, and its two directors are Regina King and veteran TV helmer Thomas Schlamme. These are all promising elements.

But A Man in Full is not promising. It’s bad.

The series is set in Atlanta and centred on a real estate tycoon, Charlie (Daniels), whose bank is calling in his near-billion-dollar loan. He doesn’t have the money to pay, having leveraged himself to the hilt to build a skyscraper emblazoned with his name. He gazes up at this phallic symbol like it’s the be-all-and-end-all of everything he represents, missing the fact that’s an ugly building with no architectural or design value.

The bankers delight in cutting Charlie down, especially Raymond (Tom Pelphrey), a weaselly financier who wants what Charlie has (minus the debt), including Charlie’s ex-wife Martha (Lane).

If A Man in Full is meant to be a withering indictment of the corrupting influence of greed, it fails. If it’s meant to be an exploration of how the wealthy and privileged cling on when their power is threatened, it fails. These characters are caricatures and the onscreen talent is wasted, particularly Liu, who gets very little to do.

A Man in Full is streaming on Netflix
The one redeeming aspect of A Man in Full is a secondary plot involving a black man arrested for defending himself against a violent cop. Credit: Netflix/Mark Hill

If there is one redeeming element, it’s the secondary plot involving the husband of Charlie’s assistant, Conrad (Jon Michael Hill), who is arrested after he defends himself against a violent cop.

The rest of it is a mess. The plotting is all over the place, the characterisations are fleeting at best and there’s a heightened, soapy vibe to it but none of the compulsiveness.

There are better stories being told about the decay of the upper class or the discrimination against the marginalised. Kelley has extinguished all the fire and soul from Wolfe’s novel with this sloppy miniseries.

The streaming business makes it very tempting for someone of Kelley’s work ethic to try his hand at different things but if his recent filmography indicates anything, it’s that the man needs to take a break and refocus. And we don’t mean the second season of Nine Perfect Strangers or the third of Big Little Lies - who’s asking for those?

It’s a classic case of doing too much and doing none of it very well. We’d rather a great Kelley series than a slate of disappointing ones that tarnish his legacy.

A Man in Full is on Netflix


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