Friday, September 10, 2010

Boston Legal (2004-2008)

USA, TV series (ABC)
Creator: David E. Kelley
Cast: James Spader, William Shatner, Candice Bergen, Rene Auburjonois, Mark Valley, Julie Bowen, Christian Clemenson, Gary Anthony Williams, John Larroquette, Tara Summers, Henry Gibson, Constance Zimmer, Monica Potter, Betty White, Shelley Berman, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Rich, Joanna Cassidy, Tom Selleck, Parker Posey, Mary Gross, Missi Pyle, Heather Locklear, Al Sharpton

I decided to confront my David E. Kelley problem, and ours, with a systematic review of "Boston Legal," which seems to me a very good microscosm of all the things that make his entertainments so dreadful and so compelling. I started on this originally because of the recommendation of a friend (who was wrong) and my curiosity about William Shatner, who's pretty good here, though the shtick quickly wears thin.

As usual with Kelley productions, the plots are ludicrous, the characters shallow and unlikeable, the court scenes products of jarringly wrong-headed fantasy. No court on TV, let alone any court in the land, ever sees the kinds of things that happen here. The style is uniformly flashy and cheap, exemplified in the ubiquitous "pulsing slo-mo" (my own invented term) in which pans and sweeps and zooms and the action itself are slowed and sped up randomly and abruptly to match the impatient, swaggering moods of the moment. The theme music is goddam obnoxious.

Nevertheless, usually at least once per show, somebody gets an inspired monologue and/or giant metaphorical obvious confrontation—with evil, with complacency, with hidebound convention, like that. The experience of these I think of as thunderbolts thrown, so carefully are we manipulated, suddenly plunged into caring deeply if ephemerally about the stakes, as deep as the Grand Canyon itself in those moments. In spite of myself—and with all due self-castigation, I assure you—I want to stand and cheer in those moments.

The word for this remarkable incubator of human emotion appears to be "dramedy," and Kelley, if not the inventor, has certainly been one of its most successful practitioners. The thunderbolts and otherwise addressing various issues of the day, attempting to humanize them, make up the bulk of the drama part of that ugly word. The comedy, so-called, tends to derive almost exclusively from what was called "jiggle TV" in an earlier time, incidents of rampant, tawdry, repulsive sexuality, telegraphed sitcom style in elaborate set pieces of humiliation. The basic idea appears to be a kind of vision of the noble egalitarian society wherein all are equal in their obsessive-compulsive and pathetic need to get laid. That characters in pursuit of this are reduced to buffoonery by the effort is beside the point, although sometimes it appears to be a jovial point in itself, one carrying a grotesque label of inclusiveness.

The effect is enormously depressing, and in the end that is what I brought away from "Boston Legal" (and its spiritual and literal forerunners "L.A. Law" and "The Practice"; I have never been able to get all the way through an episode of "Ally McBeal"). We are evidently intended to feel a great humanizing sympathy, for example, with Shatner's Denny Crain character as he struggles to confront and ameliorate in various ways his encroaching Alzheimer's. That's a nice idea, of course, and one that deserves an honest effort somewhere, sometime. But this isn't it. It's not even close. Nor are the famed drinks-and-cigars balcony scenes that close most of the shows particularly effective, with Denny Crain and James Spader's Alan Shore smugly demonstrating the various terms of their heartwarming friendship. It's not that it's hard to believe they are friends with affection for one another (though I wouldn't call it easy). The problem rather is why anything in the lives of these over-privileged and un-charming assholes offers us anything to give a rat's ass about.

No, the one tiny flame that kept bringing this moth back (and in the end my excuse for making a project of it) was those damnable thunderbolts—usually various courtroom speeches, sometimes conference room confrontations or other scenarios. It is, of course, one of the basest kinds of entertainment that entertainment has to offer, analogous to scenes in "24" and similar TV torture-porn (torture-porn in the movies is another matter entirely) in which an unlikeable character is dealt tremendous pain as a comeuppance, with the result that we feel good about it.

This is actually and quite literally dangerous territory, I think, the point where the desensitization and the surrender of critical thinking faculties—so widely bewailed and condemned across the width and breadth of modern society, with the debasement of values itself agreed on, but very little agreement beyond that—this, I think, is precisely where it occurs: When we stand and cheer against our own values just because, "for once," we get to see our arguments unequivocally win and stand and our opponents demolished all in one fell swoop. Yeah, it feels good. It feels good on "Boston Legal" when Alan Shore & crew really stick it to Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Conservative Government, etc. (and if you're going to watch this, don't miss the Supreme Court appearances).

"Boston Legal" may not be the right place to take a stand and ask the questions—"24" has more often been the target of choice over the past decade, but I think it poses questions more appropriate to right-wingers, which is why I have never been interested in what lefties have to say about it, except those (like me) struggling with why they like it. I think a show like "Boston Legal" has the more interesting questions for my side of the divide, but it's unfortunately so resolutely at least 75% contemptible trash TV that it's hardly the best case study. Still, I kept coming back to it for a reason, groaning when the first DVD of a new season arrived and wondering how in the hell I was going to get through another one. But inevitably, once again, the thunderbolts were thrown, and I was riveted, wrung out, exhausted, thrilled, and confused.

Do I recommend this experience to anyone? Absolutely not. That's why I'm writing. By all means, stay the hell away from this. At the same time, I do think it raises an important issue, one almost entirely lost in the current ongoing public dialogue about values, such as it is, and one that absolutely must not be lost—because I think it represents, in its way, the very epitome of the problem: What do we enjoy, and more importantly, why do we enjoy it?


  1. It is interesting because our views are so different concerning Boston Legal. I absolutely loved the show. Dramedy happens to be my preferred choice when it comes to TV or motion pictures. My late husband and I would not miss an episode of this show and we loved the characters of Alan Shore and Denny Crane...particularly Alan Shore. He was a character that tried so hard to be unlikeable and yet there was a humanity about him that was extremely likeable and noble. If you watched both The Practice Season 8 and Boston Legal you come to appreciate that Alan was very scarred by his childhood and was dealing with a plethora of emotional baggage. Denny was also dealing with baggage most notably his Alzheimers and trying very hard to be noticed and not to be forgotten.

    This show more than any that my late husband and I watched caused us to ROFLOL. They would say anything and usually there was always a line or two that would completely catch us off guard and cause us to laugh out loud...I am an extremely tough audience when it comes to comedies and seldom laugh out loud. I might appreciate a joke, but I rarely laugh at them.

    Most importantly the show brought to the front issues and concerns. By using the wacky, almost slap-stick at times, comedy to entertain and the drama to bring forth topics to educate it was a unique show. James Spader was brilliant as Alan Shore particularly when he was delivering the major closing arguments for the various cases...none perhaps moreso than in the episode "Stick It" when he articulated just how apathetic we as Americans have become to the injustices that are playing out here at home and in the world at large, and what a great monologue it was to exemplify the problem. Another was in the episode "The Court Supreme"...granted no way in the world could a real attorney say what Alan did to the Supreme Court Justices, but I wish they could! David Kelley and team, through Alan, said what many people think and are not able to get across to the Justices. If not for the absurdity much of what was said and addressed in this show would not have gotten is through comedy that the greatest truths are spoken. That was the case with Boston Legal, make it a wacky world and then take on the important issues. I miss the writing for the show, the crazy characters, and most of all the wonderful performances given each week by James Spader, William Shatner, and Candice Bergen.

    I realize this type of show is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy dramedy this is an excellent show. I really miss Alan and Denny!

  2. Fair enough. No question that Spader was awfully good here. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.