Picket Fences: The Most Bonkers Plotlines from an Overlooked Classic

Dustin Waters
Dustin Waters is a writer from Macon, Ga, currently living in D.C. After years as a beat reporter in the Lowcountry, he now focuses his time on historical oddities, trashy movies, and the merits of professional wrestling.

Months ago when scenes from The Good Doctor went viral online, I thought, “I can’t wait until the internet finds out about Picket Fences.” 

From the mind of landmark television creator David E. Kelly, Picket Fences premiered in 1992 and served to broaden the blend of small-town surrealism that Twin Peaks had popularized. Currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime, Picket Fences details the unique happenings of the small town of Rome, Wisconsin.

Looking back on the series, some aspects remain surprisingly relevant even today. Most contemporary shows fail to address topics like abortion, euthanasia, transphobia, religion, and sex in a way that feels enlightening — or even compelling. 

Also, Picket Fences features some of the most batshit wild plotlines for a show made in 1992 or 2992. Some of my earliest memories are of watching Picket Fences. So when it came to seeing cows give birth to humans on network TV, I thought that’s what television and life in general were supposed to be (more on that later). 

So let’s look back at some of the most random, absurd stories from the world of Picket Fences. For the sake of uniformity, these synopses are taken from Wikipedia, but I’ll elaborate and fill you in on anything that may have been omitted or overlooked. Let’s start with season one.

The Green Bay Chopper

“After a child brings a severed human hand to school for show and tell, the sheriff’s department teams with the FBI to pursue a serial kidnapper, the ‘Green Bay Chopper,’ who severs the right hands of his victims.”

Picket Fences started off hot, with “The Green Bay Chopper” airing following the two-part pilot episode. Notably, that little girl who introduces the severed hand to her classmates is none other than a young Elisabeth Moss. Yes, little Peggy Olson herself. 

Mr. Dreeb Comes to Town

“[Deputy Sheriff Maxine Stewart] falls for a dwarf who rides into town on an elephant, which the dwarf says was being abused at a circus. Jill tells Kimberly’s favorite teacher, Mr. Pankow, that he has a brain tumor.”

OK, so there is a lot to unpack here. Lauren Holly played Deputy Sheriff Stewart — you can call her Max. And the dude with the elephant in this episode is played by none other than Michael J. Anderson, who you may remember as the Man from Another Place on Twin Peaks

Jill is the doctor mom of Picket Fences’ core family, the Brocks. Her husband is the town sheriff, Jimmy Brock, played by Tom Skerritt and his mustache. They have three children: two boys named Matthew and Zach, and Jimmy’s daughter from a previous marriage, Kimberly. 

Apparently, Kimberly’s teacher has a brain tumor, but all anybody is talking about is the dude riding an elephant into town. Also, Jill has to perform an emergency enema on the elephant in their garage. This is just the THIRD episode.

Sacred Hearts

“An elderly patient is murdered at a nursing home. A ‘singing serial mercy-killing’ nun is arrested, sparking controversy over the ethics and legality of euthanasia.”

This is the first of many episodes that focuses on the debate surrounding euthanasia. Euthanasia was all the rage in the ’90s. Everyone was fascinated by Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his efforts to support assisted suicide. Anyway, here is a track from the jazz album he released on which he plays the flute.

Pageantry

“A rabbi seeks to block the town from staging a religiously-themed Christmas pageant on public property. The town is shocked to learn that beloved teacher Louise Talbot, scheduled to play the Virgin Mary in the pageant, is a post-operative transsexual. The discovery pits Jimmy and Jill against each other as Louise’s future as teacher is in question.”

As with many plotlines in Picket Fences, this episode finds its resolution in the courtroom of the Honorable Henry Bone. Ray Walston, who you may remember from My Favorite Martian, received two Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor for his portrayal of this blunt but just judge. 

I’ll quote Bone’s monologue from this episode, as he lays out his ruling regarding the firing of Ms. Talbot:

“Like I said, the thought of a man having an operation to remove his… so he can then become a woman, it makes me extremely squeamish, if not ill. Now that’s a human reaction, I guess. And we can all be forgiven for having it. What is not forgivable, however, is to indulge our own personal distaste at the expense of somebody’s civil rights. There’s been no evidence that this woman has been anything but an exemplary teacher. No suggestion that she hasn’t adhered to the highest standard. You are seeking to strip her of a job because of her status as a transsexual. Well, that is flat out against Wisconsin state law. Her sexual identity is her business.”

Thirty years later, this episode remains sadly relevant

Nuclear Meltdowns

“When her friend becomes pregnant, Kimberly fears that she is the victim of incest. However, the man purporting to be her father is actually her husband and they are involved in a polygamous relationship. Max investigates a religious sect that engages in animal sacrifice.”

I’ll start with the animal sacrifice: Max goes undercover during a religious ceremony and arrests an entire religious sect for the sacrifice of a goat. And a duck. Little Peggy Olson’s duck. 

There is a scene where Lil’ Peggy identifies the dead duck. It is… remarkable. 

Going back to the polygamy incest, the father-husband and his whole harem are Mormon, so they argue this whole arrangement is protected under their religious rights. Judge Bone urges prosecutors to plead out the case and drop it lest they risk sparking a legal appeal that could go all the way to the Supreme Court and destroy any previously held definition of “family.” 

Tom Skerritt hides in his office as he works through an emotional and mental breakdown. 

Rights of Passage

“A group of heavily armed Chippewa Indians declares war on Rome, seizes, and forts up in the courthouse. Ginny [Zelda Rubinstein from Poltergeist] stages a protest when Jill begins administering growth hormones to a short boy. Matthew takes on the school bully.”

Yeah, pass. 

Y’all can sort this out for yourselves. 

Duty Free Rome

In the second season, “Douglas Wambaugh appeals Mayor Pugen’s murder conviction but the mayor spontaneously combusts. A Catholic couple who carry the genes for Hurler syndrome are tormented by the church’s prohibition on contraception. Max’s therapist attempts to manipulate her into a sexual relationship and she has him arrested.”

Entering the second season now, Fyvush Finkel’s portrayal of defense attorney Douglas Wambaugh was a series highlight that also garnered an Emmy win. This episode works to establish what would become a running gag throughout the series: the bizarre downfalls of the mayors. 

In addition to euthanasia, spontaneous combustion was also a cause célèbre around this time. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised that spontaneous combustion has slipped from popular discourse. Not because it is relevant or significant in any way, but mainly because popular discourse has expanded in such a way to encompass all of the dumbest shit that this exclusion seems significant.

Cross Examination

“A young woman in a coma following a car accident is found to be four months pregnant, despite being a virgin. When her father seeks an abortion to try to save her life, the town’s Catholic and Protestant clergy intervene, citing possible divine causation. Matthew tells Zach that there is no Santa Claus.”

There is some real good shit going on with this A and B storyline. Picket Fences deals with religion in a way that is still streets ahead of what other shows are willing to attempt. 

Here we see a lot of the wish-fulfillment aspects of Christianity addressed, both from childhood and adulthood. The show was always good about allowing its characters to be religious, which seems lacking from a lot of mainstream programming. 

I understand the commercial desire to not want to be coded as a right-leaning, conservative program, but we should be able to have shows where there isn’t just one character, and their thing is that they are “the religious one.” 

You don’t need to forfeit religiousness to the fringes. Trust me, as an atheist in America, y’all are everywhere. 

My Left Shoe

“The town learns of Father Gary Barrett’s fetish for women’s shoes following a fire in the church rectory. Matthew has been having sexual fantasies, and he fears his sexual feelings are a sin.”

Father Barrett is played by the dad from Amadeus. It’s awesome to see him play against type from my favorite movie, yet still examine the same themes of horniness and religion. 

Away in a Manger

Reaching season three, “Carter Pike suspects that a man is conducting bizarre genetic experiments on cows at a remote farm.”

OK, so a bit of background now: The former mayor, ousted from office when her pornographic film surfaced, is discovered to have used a cow as a surrogate to bring her child to term. The cow gives birth to the human child. 

When I think of watching Picket Fences as a child, this is what I most vividly recall. I was seven years old when I watched this with my mom just before Christmas in 1994. Months earlier our town flooded. I remember waking up on the floor of my aunt’s trailer when police knocked on our door to evacuate. By that Christmas, we were watching a cow give birth to a human baby, and it was just what happened on Picket Fences

Also Tom Skerritt made this face:

Freezer Burn

“A masseur known for giving erotic massages to many female residents of the town is found dead in his freezer. Jimmy Brock is upset when he learns that his wife, Jill, was one of the masseur’s clients.”

Sheriff Jimmy is upset that his wife’s masseuse notes include a “squiggle” that seems to identify sexual satisfaction. Sheriff Brock confronts his wife, who says she was simply having her sciatic issues handled. 

Witness for the Prosecution

“During a celebration welcoming the Pope to town, someone opens fire, and a man is killed. The victim’s gay lover says the man committed suicide, but the Pope says he saw the whole thing and that it was murder. The Pope, therefore, becomes the chief witness in a murder case in Rome, Wisconsin.”

Things really level out for the final season, but having the Pope involved is insane behavior. The final season appears out of order, but I think we can all agree that the best culmination is when they brought in the Pope for a murder witness in Wisconsin. 

The show had largely lost its flame, but you can’t deny the sensation of bringing in the Pope. 

Dynamite stuff. 

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