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Credit: ABC

‘Boston Legal’ Retrospective

We’ve all just sort of forgotten ten time Primetime Emmy Award winner David E. Kelley haven’t we? That’s a feat that somewhat astonishes me; the man is responsible for some of the most groundbreaking television of the late 20th century, but for many his name has vanished from the popular lexicon. A writer on LA Law and the creator of Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Doogie Howser, Ally McBeal and The Practice, Kelley’s work was a constant on the television landscape for over twenty years. More recently, he’s had a great deal of trouble getting series off the ground: the short lived Kathy Bates vehicle Harry’s Law being one example, his passed on pilot for a Wonder Woman series at NBC another. His most recent effort was Robin Williams’ one season return to television with The Crazy Ones on CBS, but it too was quickly cancelled. His contemporary works notwithstanding though, for years he was a titan of television, one of the first auteurs of a medium now dominated by them and Boston Legal was the finale of that period.

A spin off of Kelley’s long running lawyer procedural The Practice, Boston Legal has it’s roots dug firmly in it’s forbearer’s final season. The twenty two episode eighth and final season of The Practice was the result of an extreme reworking of the programme, which saw the dismissal of quite a few cast members to cut the budget (including series lead Dylan McDermott) and the introduction of Alan Shore (three time Primetime Emmy Award winner James Spader; The Blacklist, Stargate).

Shore, a cocky and morally challenged lawyer recently fired from his previous firm for embezzling (an incident he calls a “half Robin Hood”; he stole from the rich and kept it), quickly came to dominate the show’s final season. His outlandish behaviour and complex character development along with a truly incredible performance from Spader stole the show and in it’s final days Kelley and ABC decided to go for a spin off surrounding the character. The result of that decision is a final seven episodes that serve as a backdoor pilot for Boston Legal, a stretch of narrative that moves Shore to his new firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt and introduces the unorthodox and highly unpredictable character of Denny Crane (two time Primetime Emmy Award winner William Shatner; Star Trek, TJ Hooker) who would be as much of a lynch pin as Shore in the new series.

Boston Legal is a more overtly comedic show then it’s predecessor, though it never quite broaches the surreality of other entries in the Kelley catalogue like Ally McBeal or Picket Fences. The series (which can be jumped into regardless of whether you’ve watched The Practice or not) focuses on the litigation department of Crane, Poole and Schmidt, an eclectic group of big personalities, as they take on numerous cases both civil and criminal. The cases themselves are usually quite absurd; a woman wants to sue God, Alan defends an ex-girlfriend who tried to kill him and another lawyer brings suit against network television for failing to program to people over the age of 50. This is nothing compared to the actions and personalities of the lawyers themselves, however and the chemistry between the characters drove the series as much as Kelley’s stirring courtroom speeches.

Of particular note is the dynamic between Alan and Denny. The friendship between the two quickly became a lynchpin of the show, with almost every episode ending with the pair enjoying a cigar and scotch on the office balcony and waxing philosophical about the episode at large. They’re quite different men: Alan is a staunch liberal, while Denny is a hardline conservative who loves his guns, but they click in a way that no one could have predicted thanks largely to the chemistry between Spader and Shatner.

A recurring element of this friendship (and indeed the show at large) is Alan’s continued support and advice to Denny as the latter discovers that he is in the precursor stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, a condition that worsens as the show goes on. While Boston Legal is never afraid to mine Denny’s resulting behaviour for laughs, it never loses sight of the gravity of the situation. Denny rails against his condition, fighting with everything he has to enjoy himself while he’s able and the show never flinches from the simple fact that this insidious disease will kill the man’s mind before it kill’s his body.

As Denny begins to slip, both personally and professionally, the show uses the situation to add some office politics to the mix. Another name partner, Shirley Schmidt (Academy Award nominee Candice Bergen; Murphy Brown, Starting Over), is brought in towards the end of the first season to help manage Denny, a feat made difficult by her and Denny’s romantic history. As the series escalates, so too does the firm management’s frustration with Denny’s behaviour and Alan and Shirley struggle to protect him from it.

Other then these three characters; Alan, Denny and Shirley; Boston Legal employs an infuriating revolving door method when it comes to cast members. New lawyers cycle in and out frequently, and their departures usually aren’t explained, with some vanishing in the middle of a season never to be seen again. It’s cheap, lazy, and it leaves storylines hanging with a frustrating frequency. Indeed, this easy dismissal and mishandling of character development is the show’s worst problem, with everyone who isn’t Alan, Shirley or Denny having their personal stories frequently thrown aside in favour of the court case of the week. It’d be a much bigger problem, however, if those cases weren’t so damn good.

Boston Legal has a clear allegiance to the left end of the political spectrum, one that creeps into almost every case it does. The show aired during the second half of George W. Bush’s presidency and the sheer disdain Kelley has for his commander in chief at the time is constantly evident. Many of the courtroom cases are directly critical of both his policies and the man himself and the ones that don’t also hold extreme political charge in the issues they discuss. It’s impossible to deny that Boston Legal is one sided on these issues and Alan’s extended rants that serve as his closing arguments are essentially just filibusters on some issue or another (a fact lampshaded in one late-series episode in which he literally climbs atop a soapbox before beginning). To the show’s credit, it does try to present a reasonable argument for Alan’s opponents to give, but they never once match the sheer passion that flows through Alan’s summations, perhaps evidence of the writers belief in them. I tended to side with the show on these issues but if you don’t then these sections will likely just come off as the characters lecturing you. I’d also argue that the show takes it too far: the lengths Alan goes to work in some judgement of the Iraq War every week becomes increasingly absurd and on occasion it simply beggars belief how far from the topic at hand he strays, but it’s spectacular writing and it’s delivered by a terrific cast.

Speaking of, the cast is uniformly excellent. Spader, Bergen and Shatner are all incredible to a fault, while supporting players like two time Primetime Emmy Award nominee Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Little Mermaid) and five time Primetime Emmy Award winner John Larroquette (Night Court, The Librarians) provide some truly outstanding performances throughout the series. Even characters who are unceremoniously dispatched without explanation are afforded extremely talented actors; two time Primetime Emmy Award winner Julie Bowen (Modern Family, Happy Gilmore), Mark Valley (Human Target, Fringe), Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Person of Interest), Rhona Mitra (Doomsday, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans), Lake Bell (Man Up, No Escape) and Constance Zimmer (House of Cards, Entourage) all wander through the doors of Crane, Poole and Schmidt and leave a lasting impression behind them. The guest cast is equally great, a phenomenal selection that includes four time Golden Globe Award winner Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future, Family Ties), Primetime Emmy Award nominee Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost, V) and five time Primetime Emmy Award winner Betty White (The Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland) as well as numerous Star Trek alum who get in cheeky refrences with Captain Kirk himself and a standout turn from little known character actor David Dean Bottrell (And the Band Played On, Kingdom Come) as an utterly psychotic witness in an ongoing murder case that dominates the beginning of the fourth season. It’s an exceptional group of actors and the show gives them plenty of smart, well written material.

Also worth noting is Boston Legal‘s style. The show’s penchant for flashy editing and slow motion meshes perfectly with Danny Lux’s unapologetically bold score, which is filled with jazzy panache and frequent verbal refrains of “oh yeah” and “that’s right” to punctuate on screen action. The series has swagger and that self assured confidence gives it a unique and thoroughly enjoyable presentational personality.

Boston Legal is a great show, one with an outstanding cast and deeply intelligent, if occasionally preachy, scripts. It’s exploration of numerous controversial issues is worth the price of admission alone, but the wonderful core duo of Alan and Denny is equally important in creating the show’s singular, and thoroughly watchable point of view. Boston Legal wears it’s politics on it’s sleeve and the sheer passion in the material is evident in every episode. It’s a brilliant program, one of Kelley’s finest and it’s a good reminder of why his work was so very effective for so very long.

About Lawson Kiehne

Lawson Kiehne

Lawson Kiehne is an aspiring Australian writer who is fascinated by everything involving stories. In his spare time he enjoys reading, playing video games and watching films and television and hopes to one day be a published novelist.

  • Just Sayin

    Watching it right now. Have all the DVD seasons. Best show ever. Nothing compares.

  • Justsayin

    Great article, well done. The show does get preachy, but I’m glad you pointed out they tackle both points of view on controversial issues and, to add to that, twist those PoVs so as to make you really consider the other side, regardless of where you stand. And as a liberal born into a conservative family, I also appreciate how the humor surrounding Denny Crane allows the liberal viewer to accept and even appreciate Denny’s admittedly-outdated worldview for what it is.

    Boston Legal is a wonderful, overlooked treasure of a show. If it were on Netflix, I bet it’d find a late-to-the-game cult following.