Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Boston Legal: How I Survived The Bush Years. . . Now A Set Of Coasters.

The Good: VERY funny, Very timely, Interesting characters/formula.
The Bad: Character additions (and subtractions) make for an erratic series, Very dated, Very formulaic.
The Basics: Boston Legal entertained me during some rough political years, but now David E. Kelley's last real success sits idle because it was so tied to the specifics of that time.

I am a proud liberal and a fan of the works of David E. Kelley. But as I sit contemplating the Boston Legal complete series bundle pack, I am unsurprised that ABC Home Video has not sprung for a sleek, interesting series pack which would do justice to the series. For all five years of it, I watched Boston Legal and it became an invaluable tool in making me feel like I was not alone and true freedoms in our democracy in the United States were not, in fact, dead. But now, only three years after I mourned the show's passing on television, I find I am less able to get into it and hardly excited by it when I try for a marathon viewing.

The reason for this is simple. Despite my love of the overall series, Boston Legal is very erratic season-to-season and it both became mired in what it was and tried to live in denial of another aspect of what it was. Put simply, one aspect of Boston Legal was that it was a formulaic law dramedy with quirky characters making a mockery out of Bush-era politics and saying what the liberals in the United States wished their ideological leaders would have the balls to stand up and say. The aspect of itself that it tried to deny almost every year was that it was the show with the most mature (in age) cast on television, so they tried to dilute their talent with youth. In a cast dominated by regulars William Shatner, James Spader, Candice Bergen and Rene Auberjonois, Taraji P. Henson, Justin Mentell, Rhona Mitra and Lake Bell would enter and depart because their characters didn't fit the paradigm or corporate culture of a serious, older law firm.

The Boston Legal Seasons 1 - 5 pack is a simple bundle pack consisting of the standard DVD releases of:
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
and Season 5 without any additional bonus features, discs, or incentives.

Boston Legal is the story of five years at the Boston law firm Crane, Poole and Schmidt. Brilliant lawyer Denny Crane hires the largely unethical lawyer Alan Shore to boost the law firm's reputation and bottom line. Shore clashes with the more professional Paul Lewiston, Brad Chase and Denise Bauer and develops a flirtation with senior partner Shirley Schmidt. Denny Crane, in addition to never losing a case, comes to believe he suffers from Mad Cow Disease and turns to Alan to help him in his personal life. While Alan gets Denny help for his early-stage Alzheimer's, Alan finds other projects to keep himself busy, like fighting Bush-era Constitutional violations and helping out Jerry Espenson, a sufferer of Asburger's Syndrome.

While Denny and Alan become the best of friends, they frequently disagree on the politics of cases they try, which range from a girl suing her school when she gets AIDS because her education was limited to "abstinence only" to suing Big Pharma for taking advantage of senior citizens. The firm represents a client from the Sudan who sues the U.S. for not stopping genocide there and schoolteachers fired for not teaching Creationism in their science classes. And on and on, after a point always ending with Denny and Alan on the balcony at the law firm drinking their scotch.

Boston Legal has a lot going for it. First, it is a rare show that illustrates two men in a growing, largely healthy relationship with one another. Despite the fact that Denny is largely a conservative homophobe and Alan is a very heterosexual liberal, the men get along and even get to the point where they can tell one another they love each other (because they know they don't mean in a homosexual way). That level of maturity in the characters and in the writing is an exceptional thing to see and it has largely been absent on television since Boston Legal went off the air.

As well, Boston Legal has great writing for issues. Writing about the legal implications of the Defense of Marriage Act, the "war on terror," the Iraq War, the No Child Left Behind Act and Bush blunders worked wonderfully to create a series of counterpoints to the . . . well, news during the latter half of the Bush Administration, but now, with some distance they lack the urgency of the time. In other words, Boston Legal spoke articulately at a time when no one was speaking with particular elocution in American politics and now it seems less necessary or vital.

Moreover, I wish that were remedied by great characters. Now, the show has some appeal for the five minutes per episode spent on actual character issues, but the characters were hardly always likable and, frankly, most went underdeveloped because the show was so issue-oriented. Even so, it is worth noting that the major, enduring characters of the series included:

Alan Shore - Having left Young, Frutt and Berlutti, he becomes friends with Denny Crane and sets up a strong record of winning cases. However, he begins to suffer from word salad, night terrors and other psychological disorders that make him vulnerable, requiring him to rely upon the unreliable Denny for both advice and companionship. He pulls out all of the ethical stops to win cases and even circumvents the law to save his friends, including Shirley when she is kidnaped,

Shirley Schmidt - A strong feminist partner, she and Denny once had a very real romance, but she returns to Crane, Poole and Schmidt in Boston because Denny and Alan have gotten out of control. She assigns cases and keeps Denny and Alan in line while advancing personal causes of her own, like taking cases that help to keep abortion legal,

Paul Lewiston - An efficient, older partner, he is responsible for keeping the bottomline rising and accepting cases for the firm that will keep the place both profitable and prestigious. His daughter is a drug addict and requires help and compassion that he has an awkward time delivering,

Brad Chase - One of the firm's rising stars when Alan starts, he is much more serious than most of the lawyers at the firm and he is very concerned with the letter of the law and the prestige of the firm. He spars with Alan and Jeffrey Coho, competing for Denise Bauer's affections,

Denise Bauer - One of the few women who does not find Alan Shore irresistible, she tends to be more pragmatic. She gets into an unlikely relationship with Brad,

Jerry Espenson - An associate at the firm who works on finance law, who suffers from Asberger's Syndrome, he is befriended by Alan when he is treated poorly by the firm and responds by taking Shirley hostage. Over the years, Alan helps him get his job back, get treatment and even stabilize his relationships . . . much to Denny's chagrin,

Clarence - A transvestite who is initially represented by the firm until they realize he has a law degree himself. Alan, Jerry and Clarence have a few adventures which inspire jealousy from Denny,

and Denny Crane - The wacky litigator who relies on his celebrity to astound juries. He is a big supporter of George W. Bush and manages to see the talent in Alan Shore. He comes to rely upon Alan each time his heart is broken and when he needs medical treatment for his Alzheimer's, which is growing more and more problematic.

Even now, Boston Legal is a jewel for the acting. William Shatner has amazing comic delivery as Denny Crane and he sells his character's absurd beliefs in George Bush's policies amazingly well. He has great on-screen chemistry with James Spader's Alan Shore and the two play off one another as one of the great odd couples of television history. Backed by actors like Candice Bergen, Rene Auberjonois, Christian Clemenson, John Laroquette, Mark Valley and Julie Bowen, Boston Legal is one of the richest casts television ever had . . . even if it changes frequently.

In fact, more than when it was on the air, Boston Legal when viewed as a body of work suffers because of how executive producer David E. Kelley had to try to pander to the Studio's whims. The cast frequently is shaken up with younger faces who bring marginal acting abilities and have little chemistry with the more focused and mature performers. And, in the end, that combined with the very dated nature of the caseload at Crane, Poole & Schmidt make this more a sign of the times than a timeless television classic.

For other television series' that made their debut on ABC, please check out my reviews of:
V - Season 1
Once & Again - Season 2
Once & Again - Season 1
Sports Night


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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

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