In a fictional Boston bar, over a generous tumbler of presumably good scotch, Denny Crane, the aging, charismatic, senior partner played brilliantly by William Shatner utters the moral premise of David E. Kelley’s new show. Dismissing the breakdown of one of his partners, Crane muses that “from time to time he’d look at himself in the mirror and ask ‘what’s the point’. I never do that.” Crane murmurs “Questions like that’ll kill you.”
Alas, even David E. Kelley can burn out. After eight seasons of ‘The Practice” Kelley, like a few of his characters, has finally spent a bit too much time around the tawdry, poorly lit, criminal courthouse. And like most legal burn-outs, his gaze has shifted from justice to money. The result is “Boston Legal,” his new show, premiering October 3rd on ABC. ‘Boston Legal,” a deeply Bush-era show, peddles fashionable stereotypes of highly paid, unscrupulous lawyers. In other words: it is the perfect vehicle with which to ride the zeitgeist.
Watching the early years of ‘The Practice’ it was clear the Kelley had found his métier. With a keen eye for the nuances of criminal procedure and a musical ear for the cadences of courtroom advocacy, ‘The Practice’ was the first, and perhaps the only television show to accurately plum the pathological depths of committed criminal defense lawyers. As the seasons progressed though, and
Kelley continued to mine the paradoxes of legal ethics—including that the criminal lawyers the public considers most vile, are often the most righteous -- the show began to loose its focus, rhythm, and, perhaps most grievously, its moral compass. Finally, in the closing season, as he ingeniously used the end of ‘The Practice’ to build the back-story of the new show, Kelley seems to have shared in the experience of so many criminal defense lawyers, emerging from ‘The Practice’, jaded, contemptuous, and greedy.
“Boston Legal,” is explores the notion that legal ethics and morality are not only not co-extensive, but in fact, fundamentally at odds. It is a show is built around disillusionment. The lawyers in Boston march around cheerfully highlighting their philandering, extortionate ways. They are engagingly sexed up and charmingly despicable: a straw firm of amoral 21st century Bonnie and Clydes, stealing from the rich, lining their own pockets, and abusing the law, all for the sheer egotistical thrill of it all.
Before the title sequence has ended, Crane has ordered damaging documents and scientific studies burned, and stabbed one of his partners in the back. Minutes later we discover he’s sleeping with a client’s wife. What’s that point of all this bad and bed behavior: Denny says it best: “You don’t ask. That’s the point.”
Everything about ‘Boston Legal’ is a rebuke to ‘The Practice’. The big name protagonists, James Spader and William Shatner (both in rare form) are big, brash, swaggering figures—a far cry from aging Eleanor, pudgy Jimmy and scowling Eugene. The lighting is crisp, clean and smart—no darkened corners or grey reflected light. “Boston Legal” exists in perpetual sunshine, while ‘The Practice’ was lit as if every beleaguered ray of sunlight had somehow managed to penetrate a windowpane caked with the grit of a thousand missed opportunities.
The other half of the dysfunctional dyad at the center of Boston Legal is Alan Shore (played gamely by James Spader). Spader—at his absolute best playing a character whose fealty is only to his deeply damaged self—is like a high-gloss Andy Sipowicz, simultaneously troubled and triumphant in a way it is disturbing to process. And between them, Crane and Shore form a perfect Machiavellian legal universe, where results trump process and conscience is a woeful liability. “You blackmailed him” a disgusted partner says to Shore. “You make it sound unsavory” Shore replies accusingly, his signature crooked smirk plastered across his face.
By exploring the well-tailored, oversexed, pathologies of handsome but unsavory characters, “Boston Legal” is sure to provide outstanding entertainment. But more than that, it is sure to tap into a deeper perception that lawyering, for all its old amusements, is now a profoundly bankrupt profession. The problem of course, is that a popular show not only reflects the zeitgeist, it creates it.
Sadly, “Boston Legal” is good television, and it is likely to succeed both as entertainment, and as a massive revenue generating machine. But if the formula lasts, and if, four years from now, resilient greed, sexual depravity, and strident amorality continue to sell, and “Boston Legal” leaps the 100 episode syndication hurdle, guarantying millions for all involved, and many times that for Mr. Kelley, we should nonetheless hope that his next project will be better. That, despite our impending sojourn in jurisprudential Sodom and Gomorrah, Kelley’s exquisite sensibility, and unstoppable creativity will eventually lead us all back to a better world--one where justice and fair dealing once again mean something, where procedural rights aren’t ridiculed as technicalities, where men and women of good character are judged by their striving not their wardrobes and one where Bobby Donnell, Eleanor Frut and Eugene Young once again, win all of their cases.