- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

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NEW YORK

David E. Kelley´s drama-with-laughs about high school life can teach you a thing or two. Just what, however, depends on who you are: young or a bit older.

As with Mr. Kelley´s other series (which include "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal"), "Boston Public" molds society on his unique terms: goofy, fractious and impassioned.

Debates on social issues coexist with sight gags. (On one "Boston Public," an airborne breast-implant sample knocks out a teacher in the hall.)

Yet with "Boston Public" (Mondays at 8 p.m. on WTTG Channel 5), Mr. Kelley has taken his creative cunning to new heights. Here is a series that does all the Kelley things but does them twice concurrently: A "Boston Public" episode plays out as two distinct viewing experiences, targeted to different audiences.

If you happen to be young, you identify with the students at Boston´s Winslow High School, youngsters who know that the world, however dicey, can and should reward them with its blessings.

If you´re older, you embrace the school´s authority figures, who drill you in the code of lowered expectations: Maybe you´ll be pardoned for your sins, but in adulthood, no good deed goes unpunished. And there´s no grading on a curve.

The 20-and-younger crowd is naturally receptive to "Boston Public" youngsters running amok. (A teen-age sex posse. A grossly overweight girl beating up her male tormenters. A PC-packing eavesdropper, Sheryl Holts, dishing all the Winslow High dirt on her Web site, Holts.45)

Meanwhile, over-30 viewers find their own disappointments and self-doubts embodied by the show´s outnumbered, often powerless adults. "I keep looking for the hope every day," says geology teacher Harry Senate (Nicky Katt) "forgetting the hope´s supposed to be me."

Those adults form the show´s core, but "Boston Public" also boasts that constantly replenished student reservoir. It has an inexhaustible source of relatable young pretties to attract the youth audience, which in turn can share its dim view of the high school´s hamstrung command.

For instance, Principal Steven Harper, played by Chi McBride, is a leader who speaks softly and carries a big body. (He´s huge.) That only makes it worse, because he´s always on thin ice. Harper meets with defiance at every turn: from students, parents, teachers and district bigwigs.

His second in command is Scott Guber, the vice principal (which means the enforcer). Played by Anthony Heald, Guber is a tough guy with a tender streak who listens to classical music in his office and longs for romance. He is very good at his thankless duties and pays for it in isolation.

"The only person around here who even likes me is you," he confides to Harper. "I was never well-liked growing up, and when I decided to go into teaching, I knew I´d be a vice principal because that´s the job when it´s appropriate to be hated."

He, like everyone at Winslow High, is a victim of a litigious culture that makes day-to-day existence trickier than ever to navigate. Mr. Kelley, the gifted lawyer-turned-TV-auteur, never strays far from jurisprudence on his shows, and "Boston Public" is no exception.

Early in the season, the parents of the star football player sued Harper because their son had been dropped from the team after failing two courses. The parents of a school bully sue when he gets hurt in a fight. Holts sues when the school shuts down her Web site.

On "Boston Public," the young are promised, and demand, everything life can offer. The grown-ups know to settle for less if that. On any level, it´s entertaining, even instructive, to behold. What you see depends on where you stand.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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