Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Addition of Youth Makes For A Less Strong Verdict On Boston Legal Season Two

The Good: Very funny, Good characters, Excellent acting, Decent foreshadowing
The Bad: Addition of younger cast members and some guest characters
The Basics: When Boston Legal returns for a second season, it is plagued by young people, annoying recurring guest stars and a dramatic tendency that undermines the humor.

Boston Legal's first season earned the television show several acting nominations for Golden Globe and Emmy awards, so when the series returned for its second season, it seemed writer David E. Kelley came out of the gate firing. As a result, one would assume that Boston Legal - The Complete Second Season would be more of the same from season one (DVD set from season One is reviewed here!). Fortunately and unfortunately, that is not the case. Fortunately in that some of the weaknesses of season one are not present in season two, unfortunately in that the series takes on all new problems.

Starting of with a bang in defending a woman who possibly murdered her older, wealthier husband, the firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt is tugged every which way by the antics of Denny Crane and Alan Shore. Shore finds his time invested in aiding Catherine Piper, whose new friendship with mother-killer Bernard leads her to be a drain on Alan. Denny, for his part, continues to fear Alzheimer's and Mad Cow and worries that his genius in the courtroom is ebbing as his friendship with Shore increases.

The firm takes on new associates, like Denise Bauer, Garrett Wells and Sara Holt. They become embroiled with personal affairs with clients and family members and each other. Who will be made a new partner at the firm becomes a huge issue when Alan Shore begins to lobby heavily for the quirky, socially-awkard but brilliant "Hands." And the significant lawyers do more traveling.

And it's funny, but it's also a lot less solid than the first season. While the humor might well hold up better over multiple viewings than in the first season, there are a great deal more moments that are serious or outright disturbing in Boston Legal - The Complete Second Season. So, for example, in season two Alan Shore finds himself losing someone important to him and he begins to suffer from night terrors, a fear of clowns and he begins to experience word salad (which is often a harbinger of schizophrenia). Shirley Schmidt finds herself in the company and pursued by her ex-husband Ivan Tiggs. And newcomer Denise Bauer finds herself falling in love with a terminally ill man.

These are most certainly not happy, amusing storylines. The characters expose their dark sides this season as they try to win cases and explore life outside the office. Alan's fears not withstanding, he finds himself in a friendship with Jerry Espenson ("Hands") who is one of the most painfully awkward individuals ever committed to celluloid (he suffers from an adult form of autism). In order to win a case, Brad finds himself torturing a priest. In order to save his daughter, Paul intervenes and has her kidnaped to rehab. These are difficult and not funny things to watch.

Added to the mix are younger cast members. While Julie Bowen replaces Monica Potter in the cast as the fairly generic, initially cold blonde, she starts the season (and continues it) with a mature sense of character that works. In fact, Bowen as Denise Bauer replaces both Potter and Rhona Mitra and that works out well. What does not work out as well is the addition of Justin Mentell and Ryan Michelle Bathe as Garrett and Sara. It's almost like ABC could not stand having such a mature cast and thought what Boston Legal needed was younger people. Fortunately, this experiment does not last long.

Indeed, the best moment for Catherine Piper (Betty White's recurring character) the entire season is when she puts Garrett in his place and takes over his office for her sandwich making operation. We never see Garrett again after that and that's just fine with me. Outside the problem of new, young cast members brought on for inexplicable reasons in a show about an established, successful law firm, Boston Legal - The Complete Second Season suffers from devoting too much time to characters that do not work so well, who exist on the periphery. Unlike Jerry Espenson, who plays off Alan Shore and gives an opportunity to expand the depth of Shore's ability to care for another human being, characters like Catherine Piper and Bernard Ferrion serve only to distract from characters the viewer cares about. Similarly, Denny's new fiance, Beverly, does not so much add to Denny's character (though her leaving gives for some great Shore-Crane scenes) as distract from it. Similarly, Ivan Tiggs is more of an annoyance than anything that makes one appreciate Shirley Schmidt more.

What does work is the acting. It's no surprise that Christian Clemenson won the Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Jerry Espenson. Clemenson takes a difficult role that could easily fall into parody and rules it with by creating one of the most socially awkward, painful to watch individuals ever seen on television. There are moments when Clemenson's performance is so heartwrenching as to make the viewer feel guilty about laughing at him because his antics are based in such a serious pathology.

Rene Auberjonois is given more to do as Paul Lewiston and that is a relief. He's such a talented actor that to see him be emotional in the scenes with his character's daughter (played wonderfully by Jayne Brook) is a treat. Julie Bowen immediately creates an articulate and serious role that slowly reveals a heart that is very alive and hurt in her character Denise Bauer. And Candice Bergen is brilliant as Shirley Schmidt. Outside playing off William Shatner and James Spader with style and comic timing that mirrors their own genius, Bergen gives real fear in scenes with Christian Clemenson and empathy for the conflicts of her heart with Tom Selleck (Ivan Tiggs).

Of course, the show is ruled by Alan Shore and Denny Crane, played by James Spader and William Shatner. Shatner continues to reveal his comic abilities as the befuddled, yet brilliant Crane and this season he is able to bring even more humor in by moments where his character breaks the fourth wall. James Spader is able to stretch out dramatically more this season in his contacts with Christian Clemenson and the demons his character begins to reveal. His ability to take the smarmy, unethical Shore and evolve him into such a brilliantly plagued individual is in no small part due to Spader's acting abilities.

And when the show is funny, it is funny. It holds up well over multiple viewings on the humor front. Situations like Denny shooting his therapist (and the ensuing lawsuit) can be replayed many times and still get laughs. But essentially, what Boston Legal is about are characters. Here is how season two finds the principles:

Alan Shore - Soon loses Tara to another man and another law firm and finds himself despondent. He begins to suffer from night terrors, speak in word salad and go out on increasingly bigger limbs for the few friends he has in the world,

Brad Chase - Competing less with Alan, Brad begins to work for the fast track to partner, which comes through winning cases with unethical and surprising twists,

Paul Lewiston - Tracks down his estranged, drug-using daughter and discovers he has a granddaughter, which inspires him to work less and make family a greater priority,

Shirley Schmidt - Having to balance the wacky antics of Denny Crane and Alan Shore with guiding the new lawyers, she finds herself suddenly susceptible to the advances of her ex-husband,

Denise Bauer - Arriving in the firm after a particularly rough divorce, she immerses herself in the strange cases thrown at her and finds kindred spirit in Brad,

Garrett Wells - Shows up, does a few lawyerly things, leaves because we don't care about him,

Sara Holt - Shows up, tries a few lawyerly things, leaves even quicker because we care even less about her,

and Denny Crane - While juggling cases and Alan's new neuroses, Denny finds time to be a brilliant lawyer, worry about his health and fall, in love with the woman he believes will be the new Mrs. Denny Crane.

And Crane and Shore end the episodes on the balcony smoking a cigar and drinking. It's an adult show, so one might forgive them their adult legal vices. Sadly, it's a shame that David E. Kelley perpetrates the trappings of material success with those scenes (which are among the series' best character moments) rather than challenging them (outside a weak ending to an episode where the women have a balcony moment and reiterate how stupid smoking is).

This is a much harder to recommend season than the first, though it has its moments of genius and is still quite amusing and quite good.

For other works with Julie Bowen, please check out my reviews of:
Horrible Bosses
Weeds - Season Four


Check out other television reviews I have done by clicking here to visit the appropriate index page!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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