Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Date This! Boston Legal Shakes It Up For "The Complete Fourth Season" On DVD!

The Good: Wonderful new cast members, Great character work, Interesting cases
The Bad: Lack of impressive DVD bonus features, Dated.
The Basics: Even with only twenty episodes, the addition of John Larroquette to Boston Legal infuses the fourth season with life and zest that makes the DVD worth buying!

[This review was originally written in June of 2008. I enjoyed the narrative voice of it, so I decided to keep in intact. Enjoy!]

Last Tuesday, I lost a friend. I lost a good, dear, and beloved friend on Tuesday at 11 P.M. and the worst part about it was that I didn't know I was losing it until it was gone. Having heard the rumors that the fifth season would be its last, despite the many allusions the week before, it was only when the final credits rolled on Tuesday's double-long episode that I realized Boston Legal was over. It has been a long time since I have sworn as vehemently and articulately as I did on Tuesday. So, the only balm I had was picking up Boston Legal - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD. The twenty-episode season is one of the stronger boxed sets to appear following last year's writer's strike, but now as I contemplate it, I just wish there were more.

In its fourth season, Boston Legal is once again plagued by the network-demanded standards of trying to sex the show up by bringing in younger cast members. Once again, the attempt did not work and by the end of the season, only two of the new characters remained. Fortunately, they were good and decent characters and the show entered its final season with one of its tightest casts ever. But this season saw the addition of John Larroquette as Carl Sack and Tara Summers as Katie Lloyd to enhance the cast and the arrival and departure of Taraji P. Henson as Whitney Rome and Saffron Burrows as Lorraine Weller. And despite the distractions from the rearranging of the cast, the absence of Rene Auberjonois as Paul Lewiston, and the formulaic feeling to the show, Boston Legal makes for a great DVD set for the fourth season.

In the fourth season, Crane, Poole and Schmidt is restructured, largely to keep the mentally unstable Denny Crane in check. Carl Sack arrives from the New York office and instead of pacifying the firm, the eccentricities of Clarence and Jerry begin to wear him down and his romantic relationship with Shirley Schmidt causes Denny to become more unstable. As well, Alan is plagued by the hiring of lawyer Lorraine Weller, who has incredible sexual power over him.

The cases in this season have a tendency to pit the lawyers of the firm against one another at various points, like Alan and Shirley arguing opposite sides of a case and a season finale that has Alan and Denny debating patriotism and dissent in the courtroom. Clarence gets into trouble with his mortgage rates, Jerry is sued for sexual harassment, Denny is sued for firing a fat lawyer. But some of the cases are absolutely brilliant, including one involving a young woman who sues her school for teaching abstinence only education when she gets HIV as a result of how sex education was taught to her. Shirley and Alan sue a delegate for changing their vote in a primary election and Alan goes to the Supreme Court in defense of a mentally retarded man who is being sentenced to death for sexually assaulting a girl. As well, Carl soon reveals that despite their winning record, the firm's books are not balancing and without some cases that make real money (instead of just shaking things up) Crane, Poole and Schmidt is in serious trouble.

The cases are topical and timely, the characters continue to evolve and Boston Legal has a number of high points in the fourth season. As well, by this time, Denny and Alan end each episode out on the balcony, smoking cigars, drinking and waxing philosophical. I don't drink and deplore smoking, but I love the scenes and they contain a camaraderie uncommon in television.

I'm a fan of Boston Legal, but it is in rewatching the series on DVD that one comes to realize how repetitive the show is. As with the prior season, the biggest changes involve the rotating characters and in the topical cases taken by the firm. Indeed, David E. Kelley is the loudest writer on television today fighting the policies of the Bush Administration and the Congressional ineptitudes that allow them to persist. The cases that seek to raise the public debate about the War On Terror (a fired officer who was honest about his homosexuality sues in this season), the use of patriotism as a means of control, and the fluctuating housing market keep the show fresh and one of the defining programs of the mid-2000s.

What this means in the long run is that the boxed set of "Season Four" will be best as a historical document, save for the important development of the show's characters. With the current Administration on its way out, one suspects Boston Legal took its curtain call at an appropriate time (though as a liberal I would have liked to see Kelley's work outlast Bush's!). Still, there is enough in the fourth season that it is punchy and truly great.

That would not be possible were it not for the characters. Boston Legal has interesting, clever characters who make the show worth watching each week. In the fourth season, the principle characters include:

Alan Shore - Breaking up with his Judge girlfriend, Alan finds him powerless to resist Lorraine, whose advances and manipulations soon strain his relationship with Denny. Alan attempts to resist Lorraine, but his word salad returns, much to everyone's chagrin. As Alan and Denny become distant, he also pushes away Clarence and Jerry. Ever the malcontent, he goes up against Shirley and Denny and nabs a case with the Supreme Court arguably to benefit his ego,

Shirley Schmidt - Watching her father suffer from advanced Alzheimer's Disease, Shirley sues to be able to euthanize him. Energized by the presence of Carl, she continues to fight for women's rights in the courtroom,

Carl Sack - Transferred from New York City, he is a straight-laced, intellectual powerhouse who tends to side with Shirley, whom he is deeply in love with,

Clarence - Terrified by Carl Sack's arrival and Claire's departure, he begins to butt heads with, then later befriend Jerry. No longer relying as much on his alternate personalities, he and Jerry become a more overtly comedic duo,

Jerry - Returned to the firm, Jerry begins to litigate more and he finds himself working well with Katie, who seems to enjoy the eccentricities he exhibits as a result of his Asberger's Syndrome. Feeling threatened by Clarence's place in the firm, he soon begins to spend more time with Katie and less with Alan,

Lorraine - A brilliant lawyer, her part seems to be cause for Denny and Alan to fight (whatwith Alan demanding Denny not have sex with her, right before she takes Alan in the office) and to manipulate Alan,

Katie - Fresh out of law school, this British lawyer is hired and soon finds herself working closely with Jerry. Kindhearted and good, she becomes his source of strength,

Whitney - Arriving with Carl, she is a straightlaced lawyer who cannot stomach how odd most of the lawyers at the firm are,

and Denny Crane - Furious over Alan having a relationship with a woman and that Carl and Shirley are dating, his agitated mental state continues to be of concern to the partners. He takes on a murder case while angry at everyone and it appears his perfect-win record might be threatened by that decision! Still, every night, he and Alan find their way to the balcony at the law firm to put the personal and professional issues in context.

A big reason to pick the fourth season of Boston Legal up on DVD is the amazing cast. Gary Anthony Williams and Christian Clemenson play off one another beautifully as Clarence and Jerry, respectively. As well, Tara Summers (Katie) and Clemenson have amazing on-screen chemistry and they play off one another that makes both of their characters that much more believable. Saffron Burrows is a fair addition to the cast and one feels like she might have been robbed; her character of Lorraine fills a niche that has been played out, especially opposite Alan Spader's Alan Shore. Indeed, Burrows is more or less plagued with playing the character Parker Posey briefly played the prior year.

That said, it is the over-fifty cast of Boston Legal that makes the season truly rock. While I missed actor Rene Auberjonois, John Larroquette is an amazing choice to replace him and Carl Sack quickly becomes one of Larroquette's most impressive roles. Unlike his smarmy, career-making role on Night Court, here Larroquette is decent, straightlaced and . . . adult. And Larroquette is completely convincing. And William Shatner continues to impress as Denny Crane, though this season he is mostly just refining the role that reinvigorated his career and publicly announced his comic genius to the world (Star Trek fans knew it from his convention appearances for years before the general populace did!).

On the DVD, though, it becomes clear that one of the best performances of the season is coming from Candice Bergen. As Shirley Schmidt, Bergen presents a powerful argument for death with dignity in the episode where Schmidt sues to let her father with Alzheimer's be euthanized. Bergen is a powerful mix of strongwilled and ballsy and deeply human and hurt by the decision she is making and the way she must make it. Bergen sells the episode and it rivals her best days on Murphy Brown and reminds viewers how incredible a woman of intelligence in power may be.

As with the prior seasons, though, much falls on James Spader to keep the show engaging and powerful. As Alan Shore, Spader tends to use "Season Four" to trot out the "Best Of Alan Shore." So, for example, Spader has played Shore with word salad before. One suspects that jumbling up words like that is a real challenge for an actor and Spader handles it masterfully. But we've already seen him do it in the past. He is at least as good this time around, but largely he is hitting the notes he has before and the pleasure of watching comes more in the character than Spader's consistent performance of it.

Fans of Boston Legal will enjoy this season and it serves as a pretty incredible document for the failure of the Bush Administration and television executives to dominate the philosophical arguments used to sell their lousy policies. It's a shame there is only one set more to come.

For other works featuring John Larroquette, please visit my reviews of:
Southland Tales
The West Wing - Season Two
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock


For other television program reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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