[19 October 2008]
Every episode of Boston Legal concludes with the same scene. Star attorney Alan Shore (James Spader) and past-his-prime partner Denny Crane (William Shatner) luxuriate in post-prandial comfort on a balcony overlooking Boston, drinking Scotch, smoking cigars and talking. In a show that spends much of its time in way-over-the-top-ville, these intimate scenes are strikingly real.
The two discuss their cases, their lives, their politics and their histories with wonderful sympathy and understatement. It is not unusual for Crane to come right out and say, “I love you” to Shore, nor for the romantically-inept Shore to observe that, even without love or family, at least the two of them have each other.
In every episode (even the opener where Shore performs this scene in full-drag as a Lennon sister), these scenes are essential, grounding and humane. Without them, Boston Legal could easily devolve into a sit com.
Shore and Crane – along with Candice Bergen’s Shirley Schmidt – are the only three original characters left in this fourth season. The series, which spun off from The Practice in 2004, started out with Crane defending Shore after he was dismissed with minimal severance from Young Frutt & Berluti. Shore subsequently joined Crane Poole & Schmidt and became one of its most successful litigators.
Crane has been sidelined as his skills diminish. It is probably not an accident at this super-liberal show that he, the only overtly conservative character, has been diagnosed with early Alzheimers (or, as he calls it “mad cow”).
These two characters make up the core of the show and they – and the actors who play them – could hardly be more different. Spader, a good bit older and heavier than you’ll recall from Sex, Lies and Videotape is a master of understatement, his noncommittal “Ah” conveying a full range of nuanced thoughts and feelings.
He plays a very intelligent man, kind in his way, well-dressed, confident, but subtly twisted underneath. His relationship with Saffron Burrows’ Lorraine Weller is almost a parody of barely repressed kinkery. He’s the kind of actor who makes thinking visible – and when he stops thinking (whenever Lorraine steps in) it’s fairly shocking.
Shatner, as you might expect, plays things a bit more broadly. His character is all id and no super-ego, during the course of the season getting arrested for sex with a hooker, wandering around the office pantsless, considering a run at the White House and farting audibly in the Supreme Court. (You’ll understand that I’m just hitting the highlights.) And still, you can see why the straight-laced Shore is attracted to him. He lives in the now, he lives for himself, and he doesn’t overthink the consequences.
Perhaps the funniest scene in the whole fourth season occurs in “Tabloid Nation” when Crane thinks he has a chance at romance with Candice Bergen’s Shirley Schmidt. To win her over, he convinces himself that he must show sensitivity, even cry. Not trusting to nature, he hires a technician to rig his tear ducts with tubes, so that he can weep on cue. Of course, the scheme goes awry. At the romantic dinner with Shirley, the tubes start squirting uncontrollably, like a hose, blasting his dinner companion until her mascara runs.
And yet, for all his antics, Crane’s character is never entirely unsympathetic. Late in the season, in “The Mighty Rogues”, he accompanies Shirley to visit her ailing father, also suffering from Alzheimers, though much further along. This episode is unusually fine and subtle, with Crane showing only the barest recognition that he is seeing his own future on the hospital bed. Shore, who ends up pressing Schmidt’s case to end her father’s suffering, is the one who breaks down, in court, because it is just too painful to contemplate his friend’s disease.
This is an ensemble show, with a good half dozen regular characters and countless guest actors and minor players. The acting, whether subtle and restrained, like John Laroquette’s Carl Sack, or tic-driven and showy like Christian Clemenson’s Jerry Espenson, is pretty good, much better, in fact, than the writing.
Clemenson, as the brilliant Tourettes-afflicted attorney who cannot remove his hands from his thighs, skirts very close to cartoonish-ness. It is the kind of performance that reminds you of Heath Ledger’s comment that he thought the Oscar was for best acting, not the most acting. However, amid the popping and obsessive pacing and wooden cigar tirades, he does slip in hints of a real person. He has some rather fine moments with Tara Summer’s Katy Lloyd, who joins the show in the fourth season, as the two of them make a real connection despite his social awkwardness.
The problem with the show, though, is the plotting. The cases that these lawyers try are uniformly bizarre: a 10-year-old bullfighter caught in a custody fight (“Do Tell”); the island of Nantucket suing for the atomic bomb (“The Mighty Rogues”); two prostitution beefs against a name partner of the firm; an HIV-positive teen suing her high school for abstinence only sex education (“The Chicken and the Leg”); a suit against a woman who has impregnated herself with stolen sperm (“Roe V. Wade, the Musical”). In the real world, these cases would never see the inside of a court room. In the series, they not only proceed, but the attorneys of Crane, Poole & Schmidt almost always win them.
The cases are chosen – by the screenwriters, not the lawyers they dream up – almost entirely to provide a platform for liberal opinionizing. There is hardly ever a week when Shore or Schmidt or one of the junior attorneys doesn’t spout sentiments worthy of Daily Kos. (Even I, a life-long Democrat and daily reader of Kos, find these tirades over the top.) No judge would allow such things to happen.
In the long bonus feature, a short film called New Kids on the Courtroom, the actors touch on the “craziness” of the show, with interviews with all five of the show’s fourth-season new players. In one excerpted scene, Sack observes to Schmidt (his lover, too, not something that would go over at most white shoe firms), “We routinely bring the most ridiculous lawsuits.” Schmidt replies, “And what’s the problem?”
Laroquette also explains his relatively buttoned-down approach to his role, as follows. “Being on the camera with Bill Shatner, one of the first times that I found myself underplaying the scene, because if you overplay a scene with Bill Shatner you end up eating the chairs,” he says. Er, yes, exactly.
All the actors in the featurette seem to really enjoy the anarchy, yet to me, it is only palatable because of the well-drawn relationships between the characters. After a hard day of haranguing Supreme Court Justices or failing the swim test for the Coast Guard Reserve or helping Concord, Massachusetts secede from the United States, you can always find Crane and Shore out on their mythical balcony sharing the kind of warmth and intimacy and understanding that most people don’t get from their families. Maybe that’s not any more believable than the cases they try, but it’s an inviting fantasy, nonetheless.