Sunday, December 28, 2008

Giving Boston Legal Its Due

I tend to be a little grand in terms of storytelling, I've never been limited by anybody's sense of reality.

--David E. Kelley

Boston Legal isn’t a show that gets a lot of press. It’s an adult show, made by adults for adults, and the average age of the cast is somewhere in the late 50s. It’s polemical, and the characters are essentially mouthpieces for creator David E. Kelley’s views on everything and anything political, cultural, historical, legal…you get the picture. His characters are ridiculous, often acting like spoiled children who use the law to spout off their own opinions in the hope to win some ridiculous lawsuit.

Meaning that it sounds very much like many of his other shows.

David E. Kelley has a certain style, one that you either embrace or completely reject for being completely preposterous. It’s apparent in many of his most famous shows—The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public. The only one of these I’ve never seen is The Practice, another “for adults only” show.

Despite being a huge fan of Ally McBeal back in the day, I would never have sat down and watched Boston Legal on my own because of its reputation as an adult show. My parents watched it, and I got suckered in—surprised by how much I enjoyed the political back-and-forth, the fact that he raised pertinent and topical issues, often “ripped from the headlines” in a much less lurid fashion than is usually implied. Of course, Kelley’s overt statements—half an episode was devoted to why we should vote for Barack Obama—made the show objectionable for many but standout in that it went where shows rarely go.

Probably the best-known aspect of the show is Denny Crane and Alan Shore’s relationship, featured at the end of every episode where they sit on a balcony high-rise overlooking Boston, smoke a cigar, have a drink, and wax philosophically. Bromance is usually labeled onto younger men’s friendships, but in the case of two adult men, the word merely reduces their relationship to something trivial. These are two men not afraid to say “I love you”—over and over again, with endless florid expansions on the subject.

The actors—including the leads Candice Bergen, James Spader (who won the Best Actor Emmy last year in quite the upset), and William Shatner—are very good, making the ridiculous human and believable.

David E. Kelley is the master of the monologue, and only he can take ludicrous premises and make you believe. As he puts it (through Alan) in his fantastic injunction against the Chinese conglomerate that bought out the law firm in “Made in China”, “Did you know the kinds of cases that we argue, week to week? Typically preposterous, mostly unwinnable on their face, and yet we win them, whether we have grounds or not.” That not only sums up Boston Legal, but pretty much any David E. Kelley law show.

In the penultimate episode, Denny Crane (Shatner)—genius lawyer, notorious womanizer, and all-around character, suffering from Alzheimer’s—wants to try an experimental drug that has shown promise. He goes to the Supreme Court to advocate for it. He also asks his best friend, Alan Shore (Spader), another brilliant lawyer, to marry him. Now that homosexual marriage is legal in Massachusetts, he wants to marry Alan so that he can be in charge of all his medical and financial decisions, especially as his faculties deteriorate. The firm he is head of, Crane, Poole & Schmidt, is being bought out by the Chinese, which gives the main characters plenty of time to rail against communism, China’s human rights violations, and the nature of democracy. Oh, and Shirley Schmidt (Bergen), the other partner, is getting married to Carl Sack (John Larroquette), her colleague. Looks like a double wedding!

It’s the first time in 20 years that David E. Kelley won’t have a show on the air—but he’ll be back sometime in the next year, for another law show. Boston Legal had one of the richest audiences on the air, but its “mediocre ratings” caused ABC to cancel it—a fate befalling other shows that have very rich demos and older audiences.

Boston Legal is now rerun on ION, another network that reruns “fuddy-duddy” shows (bring back The Wonder Years!)…which means that it won’t gather many new fans outside of the ones it already has. I watched the last two episodes (aired as one two-hour finale) on, and I was struck by how different the “experience” was: The ads revolve around “adult” concerns. Blackberry was the biggest advertiser, followed by Tropicana (it’s healthy!). What a contrast to other shows—perfume, gadgets, junk food! These ads were often silent too, and makes you click continue in order for the show to continue, which I dislike—I want my shows to automatically play!

Boston Legal will be remembered as a show that won many Emmys that many people thought were undeserved, partly because it ran against popular fare like Lost, The Sopranos, and 24, and featured a bunch of older actors running ridiculously around a law firm, but it deserves some respect—for showcasing issues and concerns not usually deemed relevant for a television audience.

Note: Check out this Wikipedia description on Candice Bergen's character, Shirley Schmidt:

Shirley is portrayed in the series as the ultimate ideal woman: smart, sexy, graceful, dignified, a great lawyer and businesswoman, phenomenal in bed, easy to fall in love with and impossible to get over.

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