Sunday, July 10, 2011

Shatner Comes Home To Comedy, Does Anything Else Matter? Boston Legal Season 1

The Good: Acting, Storylines, Characters
The Bad: Some of the humor does not hold up over multiple viewings, Only 17 episodes.
The Basics: Boston Legal's first season establishes the zany office of Crane, Poole and Schmidt and features veteran actors performing the roles of their lives.

Perhaps the biggest challenge David E. Kelley had when creating, Boston Legal was to create a law comedy that was distinctly different from Ally McBeal. And in creating the show for ABC, he was no doubt out to get back the audience he had lost from The Practice. In the opening irony for the series, The Practice faced significant cuts its final season due to budget constraints on the cast (it was an expensive cast to keep, so the producers axed most of the regulars), but the spin-off, Boston Legal, begins with one of the most mature, respected (and therefore, presumably, expensive) casts on television. Opening the season with William Shatner and James Spader with Rhona Mitra and Lake Bell virtually guaranteed by the first promos (I wonder if their agents used that to their advantage) and Mark Valley gives the show instant overhead. And when Monica Potter is a part of the opening cast and late in the season both Rene Auberjonois and Candice Bergen join the cast, one may only guess as to the cast budget for this show.

The results, though, are well worth the money and season one of Boston Legal, now on DVD is worth your money and attention.

Following the law firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt, becomes daunting when maverick attorney Alan Shore joins the firm. Shore's lack of ethics leads him to get saddled with a variety of interesting cases, including suing a production on behalf of a client who was an excellent Annie (despite being black), defending a mayoral candidate and defending a friend who is a smaller gentleman who had issues with his mother. Shore quickly befriends the genius legal mind, Denny Crane.

Crane and Shore develop a quick friendship (established in the final days of The Practice) and Shore begins to look out for Crane, who has never yet lost a case. Unfortunately, as Denny Crane begins to fear he might have Alzheimer's, the other partners begin to worry that he will drag the firm down.

Right off the bat, I will say it is not useful to write about the plot of the seventeen episodes of Boston Legal - The Complete First Season. Plot-wise, many of these are standard legal drama or legal comedy plots. The firm defends people who are wronged, people who are wrongfully accused or people who are in zany situations, like the progressive lawyers being forced to defend a school superintendent for firing teachers who would not teach creationism. The plots might have convolutions, but they are largely standard and once you see the episode once, the verdicts are no longer a surprise. So, the less you know about the cases (if you haven't already seen the show), the better for whatever suspense exists in a legal comedy.

What makes Boston Legal worth watching (outside being unabashedly progressive) are the characters and the actors. Boston Legal wisely invested in a pretty amazing cast and week after week, the show delivers as a result. The show stars James Spader as Alan Shore and he is magnificently smarmy in the role. Spader plays unethical and human with a balance that makes him a joy to watch. That is, when he does not make us feel like he has left a film of slime on us. Spader is that good at manipulating the audience.

Season One also features Rhona Mitra as Tara and she basically carries the role over from "The Practice," working off Spader as a foil for Shore. Mark Valley plays Brad and it's refreshing to see him in an intellectual role after his role as Will Gluck on Once And Again (reviewed here - it shows he has range!). Lake Bell continues as lawyer and love interest for Shore and spends much of the early season playing off Spader. Monica Potter replaces Rebecca De Mornay (who was fit into the constantly annoyed blonde role during the latter part of The Practice when Crane, Poole and Schmidt was introduced) and she quickly softens to have some real heart. Great veteran actor Rene Auberjonois and amazing actress Candice Bergen fill out the rest of the cast and the truth is, they both play wonderful, educated characters who are realistic and are easily within their abilities to play.

The gem of the show is William Shatner. Far, far away from the seriousness of Captain James T. Kirk or the buttkicking of T.J. Hooker, Shatner creates one of his most memorable characters yet in Denny Crane. Shatner plays befuddled, openly crazy, bombastic and subtle throughout almost every episode in the first season and he is a treat to watch. His ability as a comic genius is unquestionable after watching these episodes. He deserved the awards he won for playing Denny Crane in the first season (and at the end of The Practice).

As I mentioned, the series truly is about characters and here are the principles for season 1:

Alan Shore - The ethically challenged lawyer begins to reveal his heart of gold when he befriends Denny Crane and takes up permanent residence (though he still lives in a hotel) at the law firm,

Brad Chase - Asked to stay on to keep an eye on Denny Crane, Brad soon finds himself at odds with Alan and in a bind with former lover Sally,

Paul Lewiston - As one of the partners who manages the day to day operations, Paul soon finds himself overwhelmed with Denny and his antics and is forced to call in help,

Shirley Schmidt - One of the name partners and a former lover of Denny's, she returns to Boston to keep the firm afloat and reign Denny in. Openly progressive and whip smart, she soon finds herself experiencing law unlike what she is used to when she must deal with both Denny and Alan,

Lori Colson - Initially very cold and distant and harsh toward the personal relationship Alan and Sally have and Alan and Tara have, she begins to loosen up when she is forced to work more with Alan, despite problems with working with Denny,

Tara Wilson - Assisting Alan keeps her in morally questionable places until she finds she has Alan all to herself suddenly,

Sally Heep - Continuing her relationship with Alan causes her more problems than it is worth, especially when she and Brad find themselves butting heads more often,

and Denny Crane - The master lawyer who might just be out of his mind dominates the show in the best possible ways. His antics and his fears about his health lead him to befriend Alan and together they take on Boston.

This is a show that, at the end of the day is funny and most of the humor is retained well over multiple viewings. I find, however, that the most problematic aspect is Catherine Piper (played by Betty White) whose character is instantly annoying. As well, it is disappointing that the boxed set only has 17 episodes. There is a way around that, but it's almost impossible to find now. Best Buy released the boxed set initially with a bonus disc that featured the final episodes of The Practice, which introduced Denny Crane and several of the team at Crane, Poole, and Schmidt. If you can, find that, the extra episodes make the whole process of tracking it down worthwhile.

Moreover, it makes things like Alan and Sally's relationship make sense.

For other works featuring William Shatner, please visit my reviews of:
Miss Congeniality
The Star Trek film collection
Star Trek


For other television show reviews, please check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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