[8 January 2007]
In film, the director is king. In television, the writer is. A television writer can create an entire fictional universe out of his sensibility; he can also—because TV loves branding—Xerox this sensibility into a whole slew of programs. A Steven Bochco program is as distinctive and instantly recognizable in its look, tone, and feel as an Aaron Sorkin show or a Dick Wolf product. On the higher end of the scale, HBO has allowed David Milch (Deadwood), David Simon (The Wire) and David Chase (The Sopranos) to create auteurist masterworks that are the envy of every struggling playwright and burnt-out screenwriter.
For a period, no TV auteur was more successful or more recognizable than David E. Kelley. A former Boston attorney, he began his Hollywood career with a spec script for a now-forgotten legal comedy starring Judd Nelson. This led to Bochco hiring him as a staff writer for his series LA Law, where Kelley eventually rose to the position of supervising producer. After leaving that show, he created his first series, Picket Fences (1992-1996).
Right from the start, he coined his own style, which might be called Living Room Surrealism. Kelley starts with a familiar genre—a hospital show in Chicago Hope (1994-2000), a legal drama in The Practice (1997-2004), a single-gal-in-the-city-comedy in Ally McBeal (1997-2002)—and pumps it full of aggressively quirky characters, bizarrely improbable (and frequently prurient and/or grotesque) plot lines, and catch phrases designed to seep into the public consciousness. Generally, these shows attract a lot of attention at first because they are so “different” (different, that is, if television is your entire frame of cultural reference) and because the flamboyantly theatrical scripts give the actors plenty of Emmy reel moments.
In the late ‘90s, Kelley was the chief operating officer of a cottage industry of Quirk. In the 1999-2000 season, he had five shows on the air. Ally McBeal and The Practice both won Emmy’s, graced magazine covers, and garnered high ratings. But, given that they were mostly based on flash and novelty, none of these shows could sustain themselves for long. The once-engaging quirkiness congealed into campy nonsense; audiences, tired of characters who refused to act like human beings, drifted away. Later Kelley shows—Snoops, Girls Club, The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire—were all short-lived, while Boston Public‘s stories were a continual embarrassment (teachers screwing students, a mother who dons a hook after her son chops her hand off) during the few years it ran.
Today is a new era and Kelley has a single, lonely show on the air. Boston Legal was fashioned out of the decaying corpse of The Practice, centering on two attorneys, Alan Shore (James Spader) and Denny Crane (William Shatner), who entered the latter series during its last season and briefly gave it some juice. Alan is an ethically challenged sleazebag who nonetheless possesses a fiery sense of social injustice and liberal outrage. After being fired from yet another firm at the end of The Practice’s run, Alan is hired by legendary attorney Denny to join his firm of Crane, Poole & Schmidt. An upscale Boston outfit, CPS generally deals with civil law and wealthy, corporate clients. Alan rocks the boat not only with his underhanded tactics (hiring thugs to beat up a plaintiff, advising his client to flee the country), but also by championing minorities, indigents, and the generally luckless.
Given that the series was constructed as a platform for the showboating Spader and Shatner, it mainly focuses on the odd couple friendship of Alan and Denny. Although Denny is as old school conservative as Alan is touchy-feely liberal, they are bound by their interest in the more important things: Scotch, cigars, flexible ethics, and a general horny dog attitude toward women. Midway through the first season, realizing that no one else in the cast was that interesting, the show brought on Candice Bergen as Shirley Schmidt, name partner, ex-flame of Denny’s, and general grounding force of (relative) sanity amongst the men’s antics.
In the second season, Boston Legal continued to experiment with its cast. Interchangeable ingénues Rhona Mitra, Monica Potter and Lake Bell were all dumped in favor of a single interchangeable ingénue (Julie Bowen as Denise Bauer), while two other young cuties (Justin Mentell and Ryan Michelle Bathe) are added briefly as regulars, only to disappear by the second half of the season. Holdovers from the first season are Rene Auberjonois, as Paul Lewiston, a levelheaded senior partner, and Mark Valley as Brad Chase, as a sort of Ken doll alpha-male. Clearly Kelley was trying to find the right dose of normalcy to balance out Spader and Shatner. The problem is that Kelley can’t really do normalcy without making it boring or clichéd; for him, it’s craziness or bust.
So essentially, there’s nothing holding the show together beyond Spader, Shatner, Bergen, and the panoply of recurring characters and guest stars and all the outrageous antics they bring with them. More so than any previous Kelley show, Boston Legal is a balls-out comedy. It seems to take advantage of its low media profile to pretty much do whatever the hell it wants.
And there’s something rather refreshing, after the faux realism of Law and Order and CSI, about a show that take places in pure fantasy camp. A typical case finds a cosmetic surgeon being sued for implanting his own ass fat in the lips of his female clients (his rather poignant defense is that he’s an ugly man who wants to be a part of something beautiful). The lawyers of CPS defend polygamists, a little girl with the biological inability to smile, and Wiccans who are outraged by Halloween; they sue a junk food conglomerate, an HMO and the US government (several times). In the course of a single season, Denny shoots no less than three people (none of them fatally, one of them twice), and sweet little old Betty White (playing the firm’s receptionist) finds herself on trial twice: the first time for murder, the second for being a serial convenience store bandit. There is courtroom performance of “War! What is it Good for?” and a mute witness gives her testimony via cello. At a swanky restaurant, Alan lectures his fellow diners on the perils of farm-raised salmon by singing a riff on “Trouble” from The Music Man.
At its best, Boston Legal actually manages to ground all this outrageousness in some simulacra of real human emotion. A persistent, largely unspoken issue throughout the series is Denny Crane’s incipient Alzheimer’s. It’s never entirely clear whether he has it or not—tests are inconclusive—but it’s generally understood amongst the firm that Denny is a figurehead, a celebrity, whose forgetfulness and increasingly outrageous behavior prohibits him from actually working a case (though he does end up in court occasionally). His much-repeated mantra – “Denny Crane!”—is both an egotistical tic and a simple factual reminder to stave off the encroaching mental darkness. Shirley and Alan both feel very protective of Denny; they treat him as they would a relative who’s slowly losing it (as Shirley puts it, “Your once charmingly eccentric behavior has become steadily more embarrassing.”) And although it’s debatable whether or not Shatner is a good enough actor to sell this idea, the more I watched the show the more I was willing to believe that Denny’s outrageous antics really did stem from insecurity and fear.
Alan, for his part, is also a mess: he suffers from night terrors, a fear of clowns, sporadic aphasia, and chronic loneliness. Although at first Boston Legal might seem to indulge in its protagonists’ macho egotism and vulgarity—Denny and Alan make sleazy, sexual comments about nearly every woman they work with and/or meet—you realize over time that the show is actually parodying those attitudes at the same time it celebrates them (the same way a Frat Pack comedy like Wedding Crashers does). For all their come-ons, Alan and Denny rarely get any action, and are mostly left only with each other. As the season wears on, Kelley begins to funk up the boring normals as well, with the cardboard Brad and Denise becoming increasingly characterized as sexually and emotionally dysfunctional (Brad needs lessons on how to kiss). Indeed, the only really sexually successful character is Shirley who, despite being a 60-something grandmother, has nearly every man on the show trying to get into her pantsuit.
But it’s tough churning out Theatre of the Absurd on a weekly basis, and a lot of the time Boston Legal merely uses quirkiness for superficial shock value. Once in a while—as in the ass fat case—the show really tries to engage with the freakish behavior on display. In one of the better episodes, “Truly, Madly, Deeply”, Michael McKean, playing a man accused of bestiality, really sells his character’s mad cow passion. But more often the freaks remain freaks; the extreme plots twists are there to jerk sleazy laughs and sitcom titters. Ed Begley, Jr., for instance, as a man devoted to his collection of Victorian erotica, never amounts to more than a one-note joke, and a redistricting protest storyline glazes over any actual issues in favor of leering at the fact that the protest was conducted topless. And sometimes the blending of outrageous comedy and relatively serious drama becomes morally tone-deaf. At worst, the show produces an episode like “Gone”, in which the very not-funny peril of a child abducted by a pedophile is totally obscured by the Keystone Kops attempts to rescue him.
The show alternates its vaudevillian cases with ones involving pungent social issues: euthanasia, racial profiling, a Catholic hospital that refused to give a rape victim the Morning After pill. These often retain the broad, combative flavor of the more outré storylines, and in many ways the show’s lurid, Pop Art conception of liberal politics is preferable to the sanctimonious hectoring of a show like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. If Boston Legal is to have a life span beyond the usual Kelley quirkedy, it’s going to lie in these storylines rather than the Freak-of-the-Week.
Boston Legal attracts a modest, but loyal, audience, and if it maintains the tonal balance established by the second half of season two it could have a long run. But it probably won’t ever be a truly great show. To do that it would have to really transgress; to engage in some of the ideas that the “quirky” characters raise and not just get off on their strangeness. It would have to evolve Alan Shore beyond being a romanticized, “bad boy” anti-hero (and he has to eventually lose a real case—the only ones he loses are the obviously frivolous). It would probably have to give the supporting characters more than one dimension. And God knows it would have to lose the herky-jerky, “hoo-ah!” transition montages, which suggest an AARP music video. Like most non-serialized TV shows, Boston Legal doesn’t really benefit from marathon viewing on DVD; the repetitive story structure becomes apparent, as do the limited conceptions of the characters.
Still, it was a lot better than I expected. The Boston Legal season 2 DVD set is kind of like a long, Chinese takeout binge. Lots of flavor, not much substance. But it doesn’t require much effort and it still tastes pretty good.
Extras: Strictly anorexic. For 27 hours of programming, Twentieth Century Fox provides about 15 minutes of some of the writers and production designers talking about the work they do on the show.