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Series / Picket Fences

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"This place is nuts!"
FBI Agent Donald Morrell

Welcome to the small town of Rome, Wisconsin, where everyone knows everyone and the bizarre is an everyday occurrence. Created by David E. Kelley, the Emmy Award-winning family/cop/legal/medical dramedy Picket Fences ran on CBS for four seasons (1992–96) and 88 episodes, before it was cancelled for being a little too weird for its own good.

The show centers around the residents of Rome, in particular the functionally dysfunctional Brock family consisting of the town's Sheriff, Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt); his wife, Jill (Kathy Baker); their daughter, Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs); and their two sons, Matthew (Justin Shenkarow) and Zachary (Adam Wylie). Sheriff Brock, along with his deputies at the Rome Sheriff's Department, sometimes struggles to maintain order faced with such strange crimes and occurrences as cow udders exploding and a spate of people turning up dead in freezers. During its tenure, the show also dealt with unusual-for-the-time topics including (but not limited to) abortion, homophobia and LGBT adoption, transgender identity, racism, belief in God, medical ethics, polygamy, polyamory, adolescent sexuality, date rape, masturbation, the Holocaust, cryonics, shoe fetishism, spontaneous human combustion, and constitutional rights.

The series is also notable for providing the first long-term wide exposure for actors Don Cheadle (as District Attorney John Littleton), Lauren Holly (as Deputy Maxine Stewart), and Costas Mandylor (as Deputy Kenny Lakos). Also in the cast were Kelly Connell (as Medical Examiner Carter Pike), Fyvush Finkel (as Public Defender Douglas Wambaugh), Marlee Matlin (as "Dancing Bandit" Laurie Bey), Zelda Rubinstein (as Dispatcher Ginny Weedon), and Ray Walston (as Judge Henry Bone).

Thanks to Executive Meddling and various legal battles, only the first season has been released on DVD.note 

Now with an added character page that could do with some more love.

This show provides one or more examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Matthew and Zach are often forced to get advice about the birds and the bees from Cool Big Sis Kimberly because their parents are too squicked out to be of any use.
  • Aggressive Categorism: The whole town are guilty of this at times, especially with their treatment of Frank the Potato Man and the black students from Green Bay in the third season.
  • Anyone Can Die: Sympathetic guest characters can die, starting with a Cool Teacher with a tumor in the third episode: Father Barrett, Barnaby Wood, Frank the Potato Man, and three different mayors can all attest that recurring characters can suffer bizarre deaths, as does main cast member Ginny.
  • Artistic License – Gun Safety: Sheriff Brock ought to know everything there is to know about keeping guns secure at home, yet Zachary has no trouble retrieving Jimmy's pistol and pantomiming pot-shots at Matthew's attacker when no one else is around. Played completely serious, and chilling.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Kenny and Max.
    • A one-sided example would be from Jimmy and his ex-wife Lydia, much to Jill's chagrin.
  • The Big Board: The FBI and the Sheriff's Department are seen using one of these in "The Green Bay Chopper".
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: In the first season finale Max and Kenny help deliver a baby whilst the scene juxtaposes with the Brocks watching a jazz singer collapse mid-performance at a concert that Zach is performing in. Eventually averted as the jazz singer doesn't actually die.
  • Body in a Breadbox: A corpse was discovered stuffed into a dishwasher. Also, freezers. Lots of people get found in freezers.
  • Book Ends: The opening scene in the pilot episode and the final scene in the series finale both involve the townspeople all together at a public setting, the Town Player's performance of The Wizard of Oz in the pilot and the triple wedding of Max/Kenny, Carter/Sue and Wambaugh/Miriam in the finale.
  • But I Can't Be Pregnant!: A comatose car crash victim is found to be pregnant even though she is a virgin. They find out her doctor is a religious fanatic who impregnated her through IVF without her knowledge. When she threatened to tell the police, he tampered with her car's brakes.
    • A friend of Kimberly's becomes pregnant even though she had previously claimed to be a virgin. She was having sex with her "father," actually her polygamous husband
  • Catchphrase: Only a few, but they are good. Carter frequently says "I should be deputized". The judge often yells "GET OUT!", usually at Wambaugh. Mr. Wambaugh himself likes say "Its because I'm Jewish" and "I'm a character!" inside and outside the court room.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: The show started out as a quirky, light-hearted Slice of Life, then morphed once into a Police Procedural involving the hunt for serial killers, then again into an Anvilicious courtroom drama. There's also how the show took quirky comedy concepts from its first few episodes and have them turn out to have a rather dark realistic payoff. That amusing Cloud Cuckoo Lander with some of the funniest lines in the show? Turns out he has Alzheimers, which eventually leads to a tragic downward spiral.
  • Christmas Carolers: If you're in Rome, Wisconsin and it's Christmas, you'll most likely be serenaded by 'The Wambaugh Multicultural Singers'.
  • Close-Knit Community: Rome is certainly one of those.
  • Confidentiality Betrayal: Sheriff Brock has apprehended a criminal, and brought him to trial. The defendant's counsel, Douglas Wambaugh, puts the sheriff on the stand and asks him how he determined the defendant was the culprit. The sheriff replies that his wife, the town surgeon, patched up wounds on the defendant that are consistent with his crime. When Wambaugh asks the sheriff if he sought a warrant before this information was divulged, the sheriff answers no, to which Wambaugh declares, "Tainted fruits," and retires his defense. The judge reminds the sheriff that a physician's confidence is sacrosanct, and cannot be divulged unless under warrant. The whole case is dismissed because Jill broke her vow of patient confidentiality.
  • Continuity Nod: Characters that are only seen in one episode will often pop up later in the narrative, for example Frank the Potato Man in the first season episode of the same name who then reappears in season two's "Abominable Snowman" and season three's "Saint Zach".
  • Crossover: The show crosses over with David E. Kelley's other show Chicago Hope in the episode "Rebels with Causes".
    • Interestingly the show was also originally going to have an episode crossover with The X-Files where Mulder and Scully would travel to Rome to investigate bizarre genetic experiments on cows but it never materialized because CBS and Fox wouldn't agree to it - the only traces of it existing are the Picket Fences episode "Away in the Manger" and the X-Files episode "Red Museum".
  • Cult: In the first season's "Nuclear Meltdown", Max investigates an obscure religious sect which she suspects of being a Satanic cult.
  • Damsel in Distress: Seen a couple of times, notably when Kimberly gets kidnapped in the second season. Amusingly lampshaded by Max in the episode "High Tidings" when a crazy guy in a Santa outfit takes her and Ginny hostage and she snipes at him about how sexist it is that he chose the two female members of staff at the Sheriff's Department.
  • Diagonal Billing: With Tom Skerritt and Kathy Baker.
  • Did Not Think This Through: The (17-year-old) perp in the Season 3 finale "The Song of Rome" is a gambling addict in debt for a $1000 to a bookie. So he decides to get his hands on an expensive Uzi and ammunition. Then go to the local church, enter a confessional and after confessing to said addiction, tells the Priest he has a gun and wants his wallet; a priest who likely took a vow of poverty. Therefore, he probably didn't carry that much cash on him or have any items worth much. Then shoots him leaving the priest brain dead (he later dies of his injuries) when he doesn't comply. Then ends up in a pursuit—by a Sheriffs Department with experienced, well-armed and trained deputies that respond rapidly—that ends at a shootout at his house with him wounded and in custody.
  • Dinner and a Show: Whenever the Brocks have dinner guests. Wambaugh lampshaded it when urging another guest to accept an invitation: "Strange things happen when they eat."
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: A male teacher accuses a woman of raping him. The defense is based on the fact that the man climaxed. In the end, the woman is found not guilty.
  • Dramatic Thunder: Used a few times, most notably in the Halloween episode "Remembering Rosemary".
  • Driven to Suicide: A repentant pedophile who moves to town and gets chilly-to-hostile receptions from everyone, including Judge Bone his father.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: In-universe example. After Wambaugh tells an un-PC joke about Jews and Native Americans (during a funeral eulogy, no less), the local rabbi tries to have him excommunicated.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Everyone in Rome has problems.
  • Easy Sex Change: Subverted in "Pageantry" when the post-operative transgender teacher explains to Jimmy the lengths that she had to go through to change her gender.
  • Eccentric Townsfolk: The town of Rome has these in abundance including (but not limited to) the highly eccentric Parkes family (Mrs Parkes always disciplines her unruly daughter Cynthia by stuffing something, usually clean socks, in her mouth), the elderly Howard Buss who confesses to every crime committed in the town, local vagrant 'Frank the Potato Man', a pair of identical twins that finish each other's sentences, frog-obsessed Peter Lebeck who performs self-written musical numbers about his favorite amphibians at PTA meetings, palm reading pyschic police dispatcher Ginny, Laurie 'The Dancing Bandit' Bey, and of course, the audacious Bunny-Ears Lawyer, Douglas Wambaugh.
  • Facial Dialogue: Used frequently by most of the cast when they are shown reacting to the crazy antics of another character.
  • Family Drama: A large portion of the show is centered around the Brock family and their various dramas.
  • Fetish: The season two episode "My Left Shoe" deals with the town's Catholic priest who, it is discovered, has a shoe fetish.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: "Frank The Potato Man" inverts this by having the guilty party DA Barnaby Wood deliberately trying to commit a crime (in this case, breaking and entering people's homes so as to take a bath for sexual kicks) when he believed the titular character (who's wrongly suspected of the crimes) would have an alibi (in this case, by being in police custody or under surveillance). Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work out, as both times Frank had be released
  • Headbutt of Love: Seen a few times throughout the show, usually by Jimmy and Jill and Max and Kenny.
  • High Turnover Rate: Mayors of Rome have died from Spontaneous Combustion, being pushed into freezers, and gunshots. Others have gotten thrown into jail or run out of office for making porn.
  • I Never Told You My Name: A variation of this trope is used in "Be My Valentine" when FBI Agent Morrell realizes that his former colleague may be the 'Cupid Killer' because he references Morrell being sent a Christmas card by the said killer when Morrell never reported the fact to the FBI or told anyone else.
  • Interrupted Intimacy / Moment Killer: This happens a few times, most notably the entire Brock family bursting in on Kimberly having sex with her boyfriend in the first season and Rachel Harris bursting in on Max and Kenny in the second season. In the latter Your Door Was Open is inverted as it wasn't, Rachel used her key to Kenny's apartment to let herself in.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: "The Green Bay Chopper" has the Sheriff's Department and some FBI agents squabbling over the titular serial kidnapper who cuts off his victim's hands, who is believed to have killed his latest (making it a state rather than federal crime). At one point, Maxine draws her gun on the agents! This mostly goes away when they catch the guy, however.
  • Little People Are Surreal: Ginny Weedon portrayed by Zelda Rubinstein, who basically plays the same part that she did in Poltergeist. It never stopped her from complaining about little people stereotypes, though.
    • Also Peter Dreeb, who's not all that surreal in and of himself, but is introduced riding down the road on an elephant He and the elephant are running away from the circus where he was employed, and where Mr. Dreeb claims it had been abused
  • Locard's Theory: Used liberally throughout the show.
  • "London, England" Syndrome: Rome, Wisconsin.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Frank the Potato Man, who lives alone in the woods and has a tendency to loiter around schools staring at the children. He gets suspected of breaking into the homes of teenage girls and bathing in their tubs while masturbating It turns out to be the popular, young, handsome District Attorney. Frank leaves Rome in disgust by the end of the episode.
  • Magical Native American: Averted in the episode "Rights of Passage" in which the local Chippewa tribe storm the courthouse and declare war on the town of Rome for approving plans to build a golf course on their sacred burial ground. The tribe are merely portrayed as human beings who are desperately fighting for their way of life to continue to exist and are never given the 'Magical Native American' treatment.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: Jimmy has lots of deputies, but Kenny and Max are the only ones who ever seem to do anything remotely relevant to the plot, besides one episode where Kenny is in the hospital and another deputy gets to be a Spear Carrier until Kenny recovers.
  • Marry Them All: inverted, in the episode with the bigamist who cites his Mormon beliefs as a defense, Judge Bone tells the man that they'll drop the charges if he divorces one of his wives, even if she continues to live with him and his legal wife in a common law relationship.
  • Massage of Love: An episode has the murder investigation of a local masseuse who dealt out these and Happy Ending Massages with Jimmy becoming upset that both Jill and Kimberly patronized him (although they were harmless back and foot massages, respectively, and his wife explained that part of the reason why he was so successful and well-liked by the women in town was because he also listened to their problems whereas their husbands didn't). At the end of the episode, intercut with scenes of the man's funeral, Jimmy gives Jill a tender body massage.
  • May–December Romance: In "Thanksgiving" Jill's father shows up to thanksgiving dinner with a beautiful 26 year old fiancee, much to Jill's horror. Eventually subverted as it's revealed that the fiancee is suffering from Cystic Fibrosis and Jill's father will most likely end up outliving her, not the other way around. Jill, eventually seeing the genuine love between them, ultimately tries to mend fences.
  • Mistaken for Incest: In one episode, Kimberly Brock sees her best friend kissing her father. She reports it to her own father, the town sheriff. In court it's revealed by Douglas Waumbaugh that the young woman is not the man's daughter. The man is a polygamist, and the girl is his second wife, posing as his daughter publicly, with her "mother" being the first wife. Judge Bone points out that the laws against polygamy may one day be challenged on religious grounds to the Supreme Court, and he doesn't want Waumbaugh to be the one who brings the case, so urges the town to get the man to dissolve one of his marriages, preferably his eighteen year old bride, the one that started the whole mess in the first place.
  • Mood Whiplash: Due to the 'dramedy' nature of the show it would often switch between serious, dramatic A-plots to more light hearted 'comedic relief' B-plots, often within the same episode.
  • The Mountains of Illinois: In this case, Wisconsin. Palm trees can also be seen occasionally.
  • Musical Episode: Whilst not being an outright musical episode, the third season finale "The Song of Rome" featured the town putting on a spring pageant and the various self-written and hilariously inappropriate musical numbers that Wambaugh tries to get into it.
    "It is now my chance to seize her, As her husband's in a freezer, One whack on the head, He's dead, And now she's mine."
  • Nosy Neighbor: Rome is full of them, whenever the Sheriff's Department are attempting to investigate a crime that is of local interest, it seems like the entire town converge on the station to find out what's happening.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The current mayor (Rome goes through a lot of them) often seems to fill this role (Howard Buss and Laurie Bey are the least obstructive), especially Mayor Bill Pugen in the first season who is so obsessed with the town's reputation and his prospects of being re-elected at the next mayoral election that he is constantly trying the stop the Sheriff's Department from openly investigating crimes that might reflect badly on the town.
  • Off with His Head!: The ultimate fate of the fifth mayor, Ed Lawson, who was killed by his wife.
  • Parental Incest: It initially appears like one of Kimberley's friends is having sex with her father. Her father is actually her husband, who's in a polygamous relationship with her and her "mother"
  • Patient of the Week: Seen by Jill, who has up-to-date knowledge of every disease and the latest treatments.
  • Plagued by Nightmares: Zach is seen suffering from nightmares about death in the first season episode "Sacred Hearts" after he visits an elderly patient with Jill and they find her dead in her hospital bed.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Tragically subverted in the case of Howard Buss who in a few early episodes is nothing more than the amusing crazy old guy who confesses to every crime committed in Rome, but later turns out to be suffering from Alzheimers and suffers one of the saddest fates seen in the show.
  • Promotion to Opening Titles: The opening titles in the first season contained only Tom Skerritt (Jimmy), Kathy Baker (Jill), Costas Mandylor (Kenny), Lauren Holly (Max), Holly Marie Combs (Kimberly), Justin Shenkarow (Matthew) and Adam Wylie (Zach). The second season saw the addition of Fyvush Finkel (Wambaugh), Ray Walston (Judge Bone) and Zelda Rubinstein (Ginny). The third season then also added Don Cheadle (D.A. Littleton) and Kelly Connell (Carter) and removed Zelda Rubinstein after she left the show. The fourth and final season added Marlee Matlin (Laurie) and later removed Don Cheadle after he also left mid-way through the season.
  • Psycho Psychologist / Stalker with a Crush: Max gets herself one of these in the second season. Her therapist is revealed to be obsessively in love with her and, helped by the fact that she is already emotionally vulnerable at the time, he manipulates her into entering into a sexual relationship with him and even attempts to turn her against her friends and become completely dependant on him.
  • Quirky Town: Rome has this trope in spades.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: In "The Snake Lady", the titular character is obsessed with snakes and is, of course, evil.
  • Serial Killer: In the season one episode "Be My Valentine", the Sheriff's Department assist the FBI in hunting for the 'Cupid Killer', a serial killer that meets his female victims through lonely hearts columns and then brutally murders them in their own homes.
  • Shaming the Mob: An unusual example, as Bone shames a group celebrating a girl escaping punishment for selling drugs. She'd been charged at the local level after admitting to trying the drugs and then attempting to sell the remainder of her supply to classmates after she determined that she didn't like them. But the Feds wanted to make an example of her that they treated white drug dealers just as harshly as minorities. John Littleton, who'd made that very point in the hearing, sabotages the case because he felt the federal mandatory punishment of ten years was too harsh for a teenager who did something stupid and ignorant rather than acting maliciously. But when everyone starts celebrating that the case being sabotaged meant she was getting off Scot-free, Bone reminds her sharply that she was, in fact, guilty and deserved punishment, and was only being spared because of Littleton's mercy, not for anything just or righteous on her part.
  • Shock Party: Used hilariously in "For Whom the Wind Blows".
  • Single-Minded Twins / Twin Telepathy: For a while Kenny dates a pair of Separated at Birth twin sisters whose connection is so strong that it draws them together. They're the ones who insist on dating him jointly. In their first appearance, one sister has to pull her car over on the side of the road and orgasm while her sister is having sex with Kenny... and they haven't even met yet.
  • Slice of Life: The show was this much more in it's early days, focusing heavily around the Brock family and the dynamics of the town of Rome itself. Over time it seemed to shift towards the police procedural and courtroom drama plots more heavily but still managed to juggle the different elements pretty successfully.
  • Society Is to Blame: This argument is used by Wambaugh when he is defending the boy who nonfatally shot Matthew in the episode "Remote Control", particularly the effect of violent television and video games. It doesn't work.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Gender-Inverted in multiple episodes.
    • In "Thanksgiving," a woman who has cystic fibrosis and will die from it in a few years discusses wanting to have a baby first.
    • In "The Body Politic," a brain-dead car accident victim is pregnant, and her husband and mother go to court arguing about whether to keep her on life support long enough for her child to be born, with her husband calling that idea one of the only things he has left after her accident and discussing how the baby will have her eyes.
  • Spiritual Successor: The show is a pretty clear spiritual successor for Twin Peaks which ended in the year that Picket Fences began and heralded the beginning of the trend of 'quirky small town' dramas that persisted throughout the nineties. Twin Peaks was a lot darker and more surreal then Picket Fences however, and Picket Fences never overtly veered into the supernatural.
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion: The depressed, alcoholic mayor was written out of the plot by having him spontaneously combust in his own house. He already figured his political career was over, apparently making him a literal burnout was the final blow to the character.
  • Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss: Kimberly and her best friend kiss during a sleepover, causing Kimberly's parents to panic.
  • The Teaser: Every single episode has one before the opening credits.
  • To Be Continued / Multi-Part Episode: "Previously on Picket Fences..." There were quite a few of these due to the 'ongoing plot' nature of the show and some individual storylines continuing over multiple episodes.
  • Truth Serums: Used by Jill in the episode "Remembering Rosemary" to provoke a selective mute witness to a murder/suicide into talking.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting / Plot Parallel: Due to the fact that the show had a fairly large ensemble cast and it also had so many story elements (family drama, cop drama, legal drama, e.t.c), all of the episodes featured at least two plotlines (sometimes more) and the narrative would jump between them. The two (or more) plots would also often tie together or relate to each other in some way.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Douglas Wambaugh and Judge Henry Bone, who would also double as Heterosexual Life-Partners.
    • Kenny and Max also count as a slightly milder version of the trope.
  • Waking Up at the Morgue: In the season three episode "Close Encounters", Carter mispronounces a lounge singer who collapses on stage and she later wakes up in the morgue, screams her head off, falls off the slab and proceeds to get a concussion.
  • Weddings for Everyone: The series finale involves a triple wedding for Max/Kenny, Carter/Sue and Wambaugh/Miriam who are renewing their vows.
  • Wrong Insult Offence: A shock jock who was the focus of the episode has found his audience turning on him. One of them addresses him by epithets for a Jewish person, to which he replies, "I'm not even Jewish. If you want to slur me, call me a Kraut, you ignorant pig-farmer."