Frailty of Aspiration
The first episode of David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal (spun off from The Practice) bubbled like vintage pink champagne. One guzzled it down, adored the brief high, and woke the next morning warmed by the faint reminiscence of some mildly illicit pleasure (in this case, the use of the word “fungible” in a primetime TV drama). By the third episode, though, watching the antics of high-priced litigators Alan Shore (James Spader), Denny Crane (William Shatner), and their minions, was more like swigging tired prosecco in a provincial restaurant, a formulaic ritual that left a bitter aftertaste.
The partnering of Spade and Shatner debuted promisingly in the last season of The Practice. Spader’s Alan Shore joined The Practice‘s firm in desperation, after being fired from his previous job for some dodgy dealing. However, Shore found criminal law no more conducive to honesty than corporate law and launched terminal disruption at Young, Frutt and Berluti. Fired once more, he was then hired, in the closing episodes of The Practice, by Denny Crane, senior founding partner of Crane, Poole and Schmidt.
Boston Legal‘s premise is far from legal drama as usual. Shore finds himself the protégé of a man whose behavior oscillates so virulently between brilliant and bizarre that his colleagues doubt his sanity. Blond high-flier Brad Chase (Mark Valley) has arrived from the firm’s Washington branch, to save the client list from the depredations of Crane’s eccentricity, a role that immediately forces him into conflict with the willful Shore.
In The Practice, Shatner’s and Spader’s gift for a style of ironic self-parody so extreme that it might just be wholly serious self-absorption, coupled with needle-sharp repartee, earned both men Emmys. Spader’s fine-tuned performance as a man for whom ethics seemed a fascinating intellectual diversion, contrasted sharply with the simpler, survival-driven rule-breaking of Dylan McDermott’s Bobby Donnell, and brought a much-needed ambiguity to the show’s take on the law.
But Shore’s developing relationship with Crane was only one storyline among several in The Practice. The major question preceding Boston Legal was whether this odd couple could sustain an hour long show. To fill a weekly series, Kelley would have to support Spader and Shatner with a strong cast, tailor plots to the two actors’ strengths, and deliver acerbic dialogue outrageous enough to counterbalance the dark affective vacuum at each character’s core. On the evidence of the first three episodes, Kelley and his team are failing in all areas.
The sheer frenetic energy of the first episode masked these weaknesses. From a trouserless senior partner undergoing a “minor breakdown” to an off-key African American Annie winning the understudy role, through the passionate testimony of the Reverend Al Sharpton (as himself), the action never stopped. Shore settled a child custody case Chase was losing by text-messaging a call girl to send him photos of the father in erotic action, and loosed a battery of stinging one-liners on all and sundry. The revelation of Crane’s affair with a longtime client’s wife allowed Shatner to deliver aplomb and nihilism in equal measure, as he invited the man to go ahead and shoot him. Just as importantly, snappy cutting and vivid close shots paralleled the busyness of the storylines.
At first, supporting players buzzed inconsequentially around the two leads. Apparently, beautiful women can sleep their way to success (bedding clients and colleagues indiscriminately), but in the process are robbed of their autonomy, identity, and any good lines. So interchangeable are the women’s storylines and dialogue that it’s difficult even to remember their names. Fortunately, one of the brunettes has an English accent (Rhona Mitry as Tara Wilson), distinguishing her from the wavy-haired brunette (Lake Bell as Sally Heep). A scene in the all-male bastion of Crane’s penthouse suite at the end of episode three shows exactly their trouble: Sally arrives to report that she has won her first case by pulling the proverbial rabbit out of a hat, but most of her dialogue, and all her close-ups, revolve around her arranging with Shore in whose “hutch” they will have sex that night.
By episode three, storylines were looking like the outrageous fantasies of a lonely child desperate for attention. Shore took action on behalf of a client suing her former boss for sexual harassment and faced, as opposing counsel, the disappointed ex-girlfriend who tried to kill him with a car. Although his legal acumen released her from the mental hospital to which she was condemned, he came to suspect, in one plot twist north of a corkscrew, that she was now stalking him. Creative writing class dialogue and soap-style directing resulted in the dullest courtroom scenes since Perry Mason called Della Street to the stand.
Most egregiously, the show unrepentantly endorses and exploits traditional assumptions about lawyers: white privilege, boys are for business, girls are for sex, greed is good. The excesses go beyond the politically incorrect. Boston Legal is openly celebrates the privileges capitalism offers to a tiny minority, visible in their gleeful Olympian amorality in public, private, and professional life. By repackaging the morality of Enron, Halliburton, and widespread mutual fund mismanagement as frivolous eccentricity, the show valorizes the super-rich behaving super badly and getting away with it, over and over again.
Moreover, the tenor here is quite different from earlier “rich folk behaving badly” shows which made unlikely heroes out of J.R. Ewing and Alexis Carrington. Those characters directed their venom at each other, or fellow competitors for family and business wealth. In Boston Legal, the venom sprays downwards, at everyone who is not “like us.” Clients (blatantly less privileged, women, African Americans, and Latinos) are merely the means to money and fame, or better, notoriety.
Those involved in the show describe it as “light” and “funny,” as if it were just a frothy entertainment. And several reviewers celebrate its “loopiness,” “fruitiness,” and “La-La Land” wackiness. Nothing, however, can hide the fact that, despite its idiosyncrasies, Boston Legal is all too accurate in its portrayal of our cultural moment, in which the gaps between richer and poorer grow ever larger and social and political empathy grows ever more anemic. It’s a cultural moment for which David E. Kelley seems to have discovered a particular affinity, both in the later seasons of Ally McBeal and here again in Boston Legal. Looking back, it appears that L.A. Law will eventually stand as his finest work. On that show, he showed sympathy for human fallibility and the frailty of aspiration. He also remembered that language could mean something more than the momentary reaction it produced, that “story” could accumulate into something other than a collection of vignettes, however witty or outrageous they may be.