David E. Kelley had never been to the Badger State when he created Picket Fences, but he couldn't have chosen a better canvas for his liberal-leaning politics than Rome, Wis. Educated, progressive, small-town folks: Bill Clinton was gunning for those voters in 1992. Fences debuted less than two months before Clinton's election and ran for nearly all of his first term. Seen today, it's a prescient chronicle of the culture wars that defined his presidency.
Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt) and his wife, Jill (Kathy Baker), are the sheriff and doctor, respectively, of Rome, where strange things happen with stunning regularity. In a making-of, Kelley says he gave them those jobs so he could tell the crime and medical stories he favors with a twist. Fences feels like 7th Heaven by way of Twin Peaks: Each week, residents of Rome confront matters both mundane (school bullies) and mystifying (UFOs). As a writer, Kelley clearly believes fiction should be stranger than truth, which explains why goat sacrifices, elephant-riding dwarfs, and a hostage-taking Santa also turn up. Nonsense, yes, but to roll your eyes and move along is to dismiss some pretty provocative TV. Take ''Pageantry,'' a daring episode that tracks the uproar when a local teacher is revealed to be transsexual. After she's forced to withdraw from playing Mary in the Christmas play, Jimmy asks, ''When did we license the backlash? The country [is] rolling backward on the issue of sexuality.'' I didn't know whether to nod my head in agreement or shake it in dismay. A-