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THE TINY SCREEN: Everybody Has a Price: David E. Kelley Finally Deals with Reality:

I don’t know about you but I was shocked, dumbfounded, to see David E. Kelley’s name above the new reality show, “The Law Firm” (July 28 on NBC). It can’t be the David E. Kelley, not the one who spoke so passionately against “reality TV” a few years ago, when it looked like the trend could go either way. Not the guy who conceived, wrote and produced so many scripted dramas.

He was the only one who stood up and said, “I’m mad as hell as I’m not going to take it anymore.” Like an aging, slow-moving, and thirsty dinosaur, Kelley clung to his routine, continuing to write scripted dramas, like the brilliant “Boston Legal.” But alas, it looked as though the bottom line was the bottom line and people weren’t watching his shows – rather, they were tuning in to see Joe Everybody (read = out of work actor pretending to have a real job) humiliated up one side and down the other.

Kelley had a choice – adapt or die. All I can think is that the big payoff was too good to resist; everybody has a price and sooner or later they will cash in. Kelley, as it turns out, has a name to cash in on – one that is associated more with our legal system than with his hatred of reality TV. Hence, “The Law Firm” is born.

12 lawyers argue in front of the jury with the winner to receive a $250,000 cash prize. Kelley has said he hopes the show will broaden the public’s perception of lawyers – they’re not all money-grubbing scumbags but rather, hardworking, honest folk, just like you and me.

Just remember, if it sounds too good to be true it usually is. There is no way “The Law Firm” won’t contain moments of humiliation, which is, really, the benchmark of the genre. Kelley has said that he doesn’t hate all reality TV just those entries that “disrespect the medium and degrade the contestants.” Magic 8-ball says, there’s a high probability that there will be someone on “Law Firm” being degraded. As for disrespecting the medium, was it ever respectable?

There are essentially two branches growing from the reality tree – one takes you down a road of feel-good miracle working – bad kids turn good, dilapidated heaps are renovated, wishes are granted, stars are born. And then there is the other side, the evil, slutty side where the pretty girls are degraded, seemingly nice individuals are reduced to lying and cheating and screwing over their fellow players to win, win, win at any cost.

There is usually one golden rule, however, for most reality shows: there needs to be at least one really mean villain. Without someone to hate, there is little point to watching in the first place. We need a place to put our rage for all the injustices we’ve endured throughout our day. Which brings us to what reality TV is really about — payback.

We can’t make our dreams come true so we turn to a world where reality has become fantasy. We have grown weary of celebrities and all their silly demands for privacy. We want to watch people who have signed away their soul to the devil just to be on TV. We are saying: we don’t require much – just good old-fashioned drama that feels immediate and real even if it isn’t.

The day will come when it will all have jumped the shark and no one will want to watch it anymore. I guess David E. Kelley got tired of waiting for that day to come – and thus, robbed himself of the chance to thumb his nose at everyone and say, see I told you so. As of now, however, Kelley has chosen to adapt.

“The Law Firm” debuts on July 28 on NBC.

Notable TV This Week

Thursday, July 21

Black Widow (***), Theresa Russell as a maneater, 7:30 p.m., FMC.

Twister (***), 7:30 p.m., TNT.

Hooking Up, “it’s not me it’s them,” more adventures in online dating, 9 p.m., ABC.

Soundstage, with the Wallflowers, 10 p.m., KCET.

Friday, July 22

Prick up your Ears (***), 7:30 p.m., SUNDANCE.

Barbershop (***), 8 p.m., FOX.

Sexy Beast (***), 8 p.m., IFC.

William Holden: The Golden Boy, 10 p.m., KOCE.

Saturday, July 23

How Stella Got Her Groove Back (**), that is, before she lost it again when she found out her husband was really gay, 7:30 p.m., BRAVO.

Jezebel (****) wonderful Bette Davis performance as a Southern Belle, 7:30 p.m., TCM.

Notting Hill (***), famous movie star Julia Roberts falls for sheepish bookshop owner, Hugh Grant, 8 p.m., ABC.

Honeymoon in Vegas (***), 9 p.m., AMC.

Wuthering Heights (****), with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, 9 p.m., TCM.

Sunday, July 24

Tuck Everlasting (***), 8 p.m., KTLA.

David Blaine: Magic Man, 9 p.m., TLC.

Martin and Lewis (***), 9 p.m., CBS.

Whale Rider (***), 9 p.m., KCET.

Monday, July 25

It Came from Outer Space (**), good, cheesy fun, 8 p.m., TCM.

Biography: J.K. Rowling, 9 p.m., BIO.

A Few Good Men (****), 9 p.m., ABC.

Cherokee Bible; Slave Banjo; United Empire Loyalists, 9 p.m., KCET.

Tuesday, July 26

Airplane! 7:30 p.m., AMC.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (***), 7:30 p.m., FMC.

Nova Science Now, 9 p.m., KCET.

A Flea Market Documentary, 9 p.m., KOCE.

Wednesday, July 27

So You Think You Can Dance, 8 p.m., FOX.

Always (**), curiously awful Steven Spielberg love epic, 9 p.m., TCM.

Brat Camp, get hooked, 9 p.m., ABC.

The Next Best Thing (*), Madonna tries out acting to ill effect, 9 p.m., WE.

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