Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dead Before Its Time, Too Short A Season Undermines The Great Boston Legal Season 5!

The Good: Consistently funny, Wonderful acting, Great characters
The Bad: Few episodes, Light on DVD bonus features
The Basics: With only thirteen episodes and few bonus features to acknowledge its passing, Boston Legal Season 5 ends the story of the law firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt.

[This review was originally written shortly after Boston Legal was canceled. I liked the tone of it, so I've kept the tenses as they were in the original. Enjoy! - W.L. Swarts]

I remember when Boston Legal was canceled; I ought to, it was just four months ago. I had been busy for the week between episodes and when the two-part series finale aired, I had not seen any promos announcing that. So, I sat confused at the end of the episode waiting for the preview of the next episode until my mother told me that that was the series finale. I began to swear something fierce at that point, enough that I made her blush. I hate losing friends and familiar characters. For some very trying years, the characters on Boston Legal were constants and losing them saddened me; the show went before its time.

Dropping now on DVD, the fifth and final season is a testament to the strength of the writing of David E. Kelley and shall remain a product of its time. And it is not entirely like I did not know the show was being canceled; the writing was on the walls, the allusions were being made within the show, but when the final episode plays, fans will be eager to see how the fourteenth episode of the fifth season plays out; there are so many big changes, it will be exciting to see how the show continues. But alas, Boston Legal Season 5 has only thirteen episodes and despite the wonderful new directions for most all of the characters by the finale, the potentials are not actualized.

The law firm of Crane, Poole, and Schmidt is humming along fighting the good fight in the waning days of the Bush Administration when lead partner Denny Crane's borderline Alzheimer's begins to develop into the full blown disease. As his friend Alan Shore wrestles with the potential of losing his best friend, juggles ex-lovers and contemplates an Obama Administration, Denny pines for Shirley and finds himself slipping further into disoriented states. As the firm closes ranks to protect Denny and the firm, Shirley and Carl grow closer and Jerry lobbies once again for partner, getting an unexpected ally in the process.

Catherine Piper returns and the cases the firm takes continue to tread toward the bizarre and counter-reactionary even as the elections heat up. Carl aids Shirley's granddaughter in a legal problem and opens up to some of the absurdities around the office and on Thanksgiving a dinner at Shirley's changes everything. As the economy worsens, Crane, Poole, and Schmidt becomes financially unstable and an old friend returns with a bailout plan that no one is comfortable with.

Boston Legal is a legal dramedy that featured the most mature cast on television and in its fifth season, the show finally unabashedly embraces that fact. For the first time in years, the series does not try to shake things up by adding new, younger cast members. Instead, this season the series is remarkably stable with its (mostly) over fifty cast (the obvious exception is Tara Summers, who still holds her own with veterans John Laroquette, Candice Bergen and William Shatner). In the fifth season, Boston Legal embraces its status as programming for a more mature audience, including a hilarious moment in "Juiced" where Carl represents Catherine in suing networks for not programming for the aging boomers when Carl breaks the fourth wall.

In addition to being comfortable with exactly what it is, Season Five of Boston Legal becomes very comfortable with being a product of its time, eagerly anticipating the Obama Administration and railing against those who voted for John McCain. Here there is an appreciable irony; when Boston Legal began, the intent was for the show to focus on civil law, but it soon became the lone series on television railing against the legal abuses of the Bush Administration. Cases, however, quickly evolved from workplace law into legal arguments against the policies of the Bush Administration. And there is no escaping the show's bias; the lone conservative character on Boston Legal is the one who is, literally, crazy!

In the fifth season of Boston Legal, the show races toward its end, it becomes a bit more experimental, including not having a case for the "Thanksgiving" episode, which instead serves as a round robin on social issues of the day and moves into intense character conflicts. Outside that, though, the show continues to challenge the authority and institutions that prevent the actualization of freedom in the early part of the new millennium. Cases include actions against the lawyers of the firm as Denny gets busted for carrying a concealed weapon, Alan and Denny are charged with adultery in Utah, Alan is busted for betting on a case, and Jerry assaults a man who mocks him at a coffee shop.

But largely, the cases are political and Boston Legal uses its time to make a series of referendums on social issues, often in unexpected ways. So, for example, an abortion case actually sets Alan and Shirley against one another when Shirley becomes troubled with Alan's absolutist pro-choice, pro-abortion stance. Jerry finds himself in the uncomfortable position of suing a sperm bank to find out if his nephew might be dating a biological half-sister! The firm takes on Big Tobacco (again), gun laws, the death penalty and pharmaceutical companies.

Throughout the fifth season, Boston Legal rails against unjust policies with a wit and sense of humor that makes it consistently and enduringly funny. For sure, it is a product of its times, but it transcends just the times by having a humor about itself that is clever and not limited to legal humor. So, for example, when Denny and Alan go to Utah, there are farcical moments where they tent swap with a woman who has been making eyes at them most of the trip. Still, as the show races toward its end, the cases become more personal for the lawyers and they get into the influences of foreign businesses, the problems with big pharma's methods and even gay and lesbian civil rights.

In the fifth season, Boston Legal, the show is populated by familiar characters and here is how the show finds the regulars (or irregulars) of Crane, Poole, and Schmidt:

Alan Shore - Wrestling with issues regarding two ex-loves, one who needs him to defend her husband, one representing the opposition in a case he is working, he soon finds himself relying more on Denny. As Denny's health turns and the financial future of the firm is put in jeopardy, he looks to do some charitable work and realizes that the closest person in his life is Denny,

Jerry Espenson - Functional enough now to legitimately fight for partnership, he appeals to Denny to sponsor his advancement and is shocked when Denny agrees to help . . . for an odd price. He and Katie work closer together and become troubled by the concept of private prisons and the abuses that occur there,

Katie - Supporting Jerry more than striking out on her own, she revises her long-held beliefs about relationships to let him in more. She is frustrated with the way Jerry begins to stand up for himself with violence, though,

Shirley Schmidt - Troubled by Denny's declining mental health, which brings up many of her own issues, she comes to rely a lot more on Carl. Fighting with Alan about abortion and working to keep her granddaughter's record clear, she finds herself defending Catherine Piper in court and looking into an uncertain future,

Carl Sack - The bearer of bad news, Carl soon discovers that the economic downturn means that Crane, Poole and Schmidt is hemorrhaging money, despite winning their cases. He and Denny work together to keep a correction's officer out of jail when a botched state execution becomes a mercy killing. He throws caution to the wind and advances his relationship with Shirley,

and Denny Crane - As he begins to lose perspective on a weekly basis, the worst case scenario is confirmed; he is showing the early signs of Alzheimer's Disease. He comes to rely on Alan and tries to buy his way into a test drug program but soon finds a more interesting and extreme way of getting treatment!

For the two-part finale, Rene Auberjonois reappears as Paul Lewiston and it is a case of "I never knew how much I missed him until he returned!" Auberjonois is a great actor and his return to Boston Legal for the final two episodes is a true gift.

By this point, the acting on Boston Legal is polished and to comment much on it would be redundant. Earlier seasons have illustrated Shatner's comic chops and Laroquette squeezed effortlessly into the cast in the fourth season, illustrating his ability and the rest of the cast's ability to accommodate a newcomer. Christian Clemenson has his beats down perfectly as Jerry and James Spader mastered Alan Shore before the series even began (in the final season of The Practice). Candice Bergen is given moments to reassert her greatness in episodes like "Roe" where she gets to put a twist on Shirley's character in the abortion debate. Boston Legal had the most mature cast on television and the result was a series of polished performances that consistently knock the socks off viewers with the professionalism and sense of comic timing the actors utilize.

On DVD, The Complete Fifth Season of Boston Legal is light on extras. There is a feaurette that looks at the entire series and there is a commentary track on the finale which manages to be more than just Kelley and the cast complaining about the premature death of the series. With only thirteen episodes, viewers have every right to complain; this is a pretty expensive boxed set for so few episodes.

Still, the cast and creator of the show make good use of the final thirteen episodes and this boxed set is pretty essential for those who love great legal dramas and smart comedies. Truly, this was killed before its time, but as the characters themselves noted, an Obama Administration certainly offered them less fodder to work with. Through that lens, this is a nice bookend to some legally dismal years in the United States and if the worst thing about the end of the Bush Administration is the loss of Boston Legal, perhaps that is a price worth paying.

For other works featuring Christian Clemenson, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Veronica Mars Season 1
The West Wing Season 3
The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr.


For other television reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here to find an organized listing of what I have reviewed in this area!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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