Theweddingbells_240Somewhere along the way, David E. Kelley lost the ability to write for actual humans. He did it on Chicago Hope and on Picket Fences and occasionally even on The Practice, but it’s been a while. There’s nothing wrong with the grotesques he caricatures so well on Boston Legal, but Kelley’s transition back to writing for regular folks on FOX’s new dramedy The Wedding Bells is a distinctly clunky affair.

The Wedding Bells, which has a sneak premiere on Wednesday (March 6), rises from the ashes of not one, but two shows — Kelley’s ABC pilot The DeMarco Affairs and FOX’s The Wedding Album — and still feels very much like a work in progress. The TV schedule has no place less fertile to fragile shows than FOX’s Friday, so don’t expect this one to live happily ever after.

The show focuses on three sisters who run a full-service wedding planning business. Rather than putting the effort into developing them as characters, Kelley has kept things simple: There’s The Slut (Sarah Jones’ Sammy), The Ice Queen (KaDee Strickland’s Annie) and the Responsible Married One (Teri Polo’s Jane). Cheap irony alert: The girls were left the wedding business only after their long-married parents got divorced. The business also includes uber-ethnic chef Ernesto (Costas Mandylor), wedding singer Ralph (Chris William) and Jane’s bean-counting hubby Russell (Benjamin King) and David (Michael Landes), master of photography, female psychology and Annie’s heart. Throw in the wacky wedding party of the week and predictable montages to old chestnuts like "Love & Marriage" and "Going to the Chapel" and the pilot is on near-autopilot.

Using the main characters as straight-men to the constantly rotating nuptial nuts lets Kelley weave in low-grade versions of every Boston Legal or Ally McBeal client who ever annoyed you. That doesn’t mean that actors don’t enjoy playing these quirky individuals. Delta Burke has fun in the pilot as a mother-of-the-bride with a love for Jesus and difficulties forming tears, while Missi Pyle, as a bridezilla, is so clearly suited to this kind of Kelley characterization that she’s been added as a cast regular.

But while the visiting actors have a lark, the main stars, particularly poor Polo, are stuck making long expositional speeches about romance, enjoying life and loving what you do for a living (rehash any speech Kelley has had doctors or lawyers about the nobility of their professions and make it 10-times more vapid). Those conversations are made more emotionally claustrophobic by the show’s over-reliance on its single set. Getting these characters out and about in the Long Island environs might help allay concerns that they don’t exist in the real world.

A second episode sent to critics proves no better, trying to mine endless yuks from a groom everybody’s sure must be gay (Guess what? He isn’t!!!!). With its pedigree, The Wedding Bells is the sort of show you want to let find its way, but its structure is made for repetition, not growth.

The number of wedding reality shows on cable shows that there’s an insatiable audience for stories of runaway brides, blundered catering and drunk, skanky bridesmaids. Viewers of The Wedding Bells will probably be disappointed that Kelley tries so hard, but still can’t mimic the drama of the real thing.

Check in with your first impressions after watching the first episode…

Posted by:Daniel Fienberg