Boston Legal: Season Two Review
Dramedy. What an ugly, flat expression that is. Like many other amalgamated nouns that have become increasingly common in modern culture, it makes perfect sense logically but somehow manages to suck all the life out of that it is describing. The old-fashioned Shakespearean word for the genre is far more preferable; the group of plays written towards the end of his life which combine both comic and tragic aspects are called the Romances, which seems to be a much more apt expression for a genre which, in its fusion of the immense highs and dismal lows of life, tries to capture the exhiliration of what it means to be a human being. This genre's arrival on any cultural scene is often a good indicator of increasing audience sophistication (it certainly was in Shakespeare's time), and it’s no coincidence that the style has become increasingly common on television in the last ten, fifteen years. In that period the small screen has undergone somewhat of a renaissance, growing increasingly confident with the advent of more money and better technology, producing a range of ever-more sophisticated shows that no longer feel they have to be cinema's less intelligent kid brother. One consequence of this has been the breaking down of traditionally strict genre classifications: no longer must a series be just a comedy or a drama or whatever, it can be all of those and more. Audiences no longer need a laughter track to realise what they're watching is trying to be funny (hell, they don't even have to be only half an hour any more - see Ugly Betty) and dramas are increasingly able to incorporate more overtly humourous moments, with writers realising that humour is often the perfect tool to underline the pathos of a situation. This is the good news: the bad is that we have to term some shows "dramedies."
One of the series which paved the way for the current influx was David E Kelley’s Ally McBeal. Personally, I couldn’t stand the show, finding it over-indulgent and not nearly as smart as it thought it was, but there’s little doubt that it showed that funny and serious could go together in the world of high-powered lawyers. Now Kelley, one of the true godfathers of modern US drama, has returned to the idea and expanded it to the nth degree with Boston Legal. A spin-off from The Practice which ran for eight seasons in the US and made no impression at all in the UK, the series follows the exploits of a group of top lawyers at the highly successful (and very rich) firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt, located in the heart of Boston, Massachusetts, including Alan Shore (James Spader), the regal Shirley Schmidt (Candice Bergen), ex-marine Brad Shore (Mark Valley) and new girl Denise “No apparent relation to Jack” Bauer (Julie Bowen). Heading both the firm and the series is Denny Crane (William Shatner), a giant among men, an attorney who claims never to have lost a case and a man who attracts publicity the way most lawyers attract pay cheques. A narcissist with an ego even bigger than his waistline, he’s a sex-obsessed, gun-totin’, hard-drinkin’, womanisin’, fully paid-up member of the Republican Right, an incorrigible rogue with no shame who punctuates everything he says with his own name as a kind of punchline (Denny Crane!) What the outside world doesn’t realise, and what those around him carefully guard for his good and the good of the firm, is that he is no longer the man he was; increasingly absent-minded (he tells everyone he has “mad cow disease”) and no longer able (or willing) to try cases on his own, he is more of a figurehead, a mascot for the firm who attracts clients and trouble in equal measure.
And the partners of the firm have much trouble to deal with in regards to Denny. Indeed, they have much trouble to deal with in regards to most of their lawyers: in the course of this season not only does Denny shoot three people with little justification, but Brad cuts off a priest's fingers, Alan's elderly receptionist goes on a crime spree involving murder and armed robbery, and as for the case of the priest and the panties? Forget it. Fortunately, this is not as it might sound a particularly daft daytime soap, but an intentionally daft primetime drama, one with its tongue so firmly in its cheek it's sometimes in danger of swallowing it. Taken at face value, Boston Legal is nothing more or less than a romp, one which at times seems determined to be as outrageous as possible to see if it can get away with it. You know how in the early years of 24 one was almost weekly gobsmacked by something which happened, the sentiment “Jack can’t possibly do that!” regularly running through viewers’ collective consciousnesses? Boston Legal is the comedy equivalent of that. Throwing caution to the wind, again and again it’s absurd, nonsensical and very funny. It’s as though Kelley, after years of collecting the silliest pitches he’s had for his other legal shows, has finally thought “To hell with it” and thrown them all in. Dedicated purely to giving its audience an amusing fun time for an hour a week, the show takes place in a fantasy world, a fact regularly acknowledged by scripts breaking the fourth wall - characters will comment that they haven’t seen each other much this episode, or that someone is a particular plot point, or offer some other form of metatextual analysis (and that’s discounting the many Star Trek references that fall Shatner’s way). It particularly excels at character comedy, revelling in bringing in absurd one-off characters and having its regulars sparring with them (for example watch how guest star Michael J Fox charms Denny.) As with everything else it’s Alan who does this the best - one of my own highlights of the season were his run-ins with “Jibber-jabber” (to say more would be to spoil it).
All that said, however, this is not a show designed purely for laughs (as much as it might appear sometimes). At the heart of most episodes are legal cases with proper points to make, and most of the characters have to deal with Dramatic Issues along the way too. However, there's a problem here: often the comedic tone is so overwhelming and prevalent that when the tone turns to weightier matters, it’s impossible to care. After all, in a world in which Alan tells his client to flee mid-trial, gets caught but escapes punishment anyway, what does it matter if someone’s having an affair or suffering a breakdown or whatever? It would be a bit like asking us to emphasise with a character from Father Ted having a terminal disease. This inability to successfully pull off the dramedy balance isn't helped by the fact that one regularly gets the impression that the writers care as little for these more serious issues as the viewers will: while the comedy is played for all its worth, the drama often feels underdeveloped and half-hearted, as though the scripters felt obliged to put them in rather than really wanting to. As if to compensate this downfall, every scene which ends on a downbeat note - every single one - is punctuated by a piece of mournful music, a tic both mildly irritating and totally gratuitous, a prompting of audience reaction that really isn't necessary.
This extends to both the personal lives of our main characters and the court cases they have to try. Like The West Wing used to do, Boston Legal uses its apparently light and flippant touch to focus on deep issues within the courtroom, but sadly it doesn’t do it nearly as well as the White House drama, with the result that sometimes the courtly battles border on the profound, sometimes on the banal. Regarding the personal lives of the characters, the issues raised are often television standards, with no new spin on them, with the result being they feel trite. When Rene Auberjonois discovers his estranged daughter is still doing drugs, we never see the effects of said problem on either her or her little girl - not once does that child cry or seem to be even aware anything is wrong, even after her mother is taken away from her. When Denise becomes romantically attached to a man dying of lung cancer only once in four episodes do we see him wincing with pain or indeed showing any signs of having “stage four lung cancer” - this is a show which doesn’t like to dwell on such problems, and as such one has to question whether they really belong in the show at all as it essentially trivialises them. Indeed, in one case the writers grossly overstep the mark: in Gone the kidnap of a young boy by a known paedophile is used as the cue for a light-hearted romp in which Brad and Denise play at being FBI agents to track him down, a farce which made me actively cross.
However, the series does have one trump card that overcomes these difficulties - indeed, not so much overcomes them, as manages to bury them deep in the ground so that they don't come across as particularly important - and that is the character of Alan Shore, and his relationship with Denny. Alan is, like Denny, another egoist and eccentric but one with a liberal point-of-view, albeit one which he attempts to hide away as much as possible. There are other characters in the show, but frankly they all pale in comparison to these two magnificent creations. This is very much the Alan and Denny show and in truth you could have a show just about them and it would still be as strong as it is now. Of the two Alan is the more developed character as although on paper he is essentially just another in a long list of television mavericks who doesn’t play by the rules but gets away with it because he is brilliant and gets results, both the writers and Spader bring far more to him than that and ensure he is a fully-rounded, deeply attractive character to watch, if not to know. We quickly cotton on to the fact that his aloof superciliousness and blunt rudeness is a shield against the world hiding a man of deep integrity, one who combines a fierce sense of justice with an almost perverse desire to bring down a peg or two those who abuse their power. He uses his intelligence and wit to stop anyone getting in, but, living in a hotel room and stalked by constant psychological problems such as night terrors, he is desperately lonely and, amid all the slapstick that permeates the series as a whole, the most impressive thing to realise is that at the heart of the series is us watching this man slowly but surely daring to open himself up to another, namely Denny.
Their friendship is what ultimately raises Boston Legal above your typical dramedy. Here are two men who, although ideologically very different (they even clash in court in one episode), are perfect foils for each other. There's nothing sexual in it (Denny even constantly tells Alan he's not sleeping with him) but they are soulmates who in each other's company can drop the front they present to the world and be themselves. Us men know that we mustn't talk about our feelings, but Denny and Alan do just that in the balcony scene which ends each episode, in a way that is neither trite nor nausea-inducing. Instead, it's real and raw, sometimes funny, sometimes very painful. For a perfect example watch the single most important scene of the entire season, the balcony scene in which Alan tells Denny he's a widower. It's very quiet and low-key, but in an instant the entire enigma that is Alan's character is blown away, as though he was a murder mystery and we've just uncovered the murderer, but instead of that being the end of the story it's just another beginning: suddenly we feel for him all the more. Although in summary it seems cliched, the way its written and performed - and what we've known beforehand - gives it a power a casual viewer could never believe the show could have. It helps, of course, that Spader and Shatner have such a good chemistry. Spader, of whom I have never held much opinion either way before now, is a revelation, inhabits his character in a mannered, almost Method-like way, imbuing him with little physical tics and a gait which transforms from shuffling with a slightly-bowed head when in social situations to a straight-backed, confident persona when he’s going into bat for someone. (Unsurprisingly, Spader has won an Emmy for his portrayal). He makes an initially arrogant man immensely easy to like, no mean trick, and pitches both the comedy and the drama perfectly. As for Shatner, here's a man with a character perfectly designed for the actor: both are legends in their own lifetime who are spending their twilight years sending themselves up, content with their legacy and willing to have fun with it. But he's also surprisingly good when it comes to the more quiet moments too, giving them a depth he didn't always when on the Starship Enterprise. It's the commitment of both men which makes their chemistry so electric. Over the course of the season we see Denny and Alan ending up in a very real, mutually dependant, attachment, and their relationship is one of the best illustration of the power of male bonding I have ever seen on TV - it’s that good.
With the dominance of these two one can’t help but feel sorry for the rest of the case, especially Justin Mentell and Ryan Michelle Bathe. Playing two juniors in the firm, their characters quickly become utterly overwhelmed by their elders and quietly disappear by the mid-point of the season with no explanation or, indeed, anyone really caring (indeed, one hardly notices they’re gone until the opening titles change). Both Candice Bergen and Rene Auberjonois (as partner Paul Lewiston) fare better, showing their class and present consistently high-quality performances (Auberjonois has such an expressive, interesting face, it’s a real shame it was covered by latex during his years aboard Deep Space Nine), with Bergen even managing to cope when burdened with a Tom Selleck storyline (I like Tom Selleck, I really do, but after his appearances in Friends I’d had enough of the character he played there and for all intents and purposes reprises here). The Denny Crane in me feels the need to point out that Julie Bowen is very attractive (Denny Crane!) and is fully convincing as a determined lawyer with a light comic touch but is slightly bland when it comes to doing the emotional stuff, while Mark Valley, is a complete waste of space. Although the writers struggle manfully all season to give him interesting things to do (unlike poor Mentell and Bathe who are quickly abandoned) he is a charisma vacuum, a boring screen presence and could go the way of those two juniors without anyone caring.
And after all, it’s Denny and Alan who are the important ones. If one was to take them out of the picture, this series would be, if not nothing, far less than it is now. They manage to blunt what appears at times a certain self-satisfaction about proceedings (that opening sequence, in which clips shows the actors stride about and pull amusing expressions, is the definition of cutesy-poo smugness) and give it a reality entirely absent from the rest of the show. The modern television dramedies have had differing levels of success in getting the balance between comedy and drama right: some, like Six Feet Under have veered far more to the drama, some like Desperate Housewives to the comedy: it’s arguable that the only shows to have truly struck the right balance have been Buffy and The West Wing although even the latter is questionable as it preferred purely verbal wit to slapstick. Boston Legal doesn’t get that balance right, and that could be a very serious flaw. However, two things save it: firstly, that it is so funny in its own right that the fact the drama often falls flat is far less significant than it really should be, and secondly that in Alan and Denny we have a great television double act, an irresistibly charismatic combination of perfectly judged characters and great actor chemistry to embody them, who together ensure that the failure of all the rest of the drama in the series matters not a jot - they give us more than enough substance. In twenty years time no one will remember Denise or Brad or (sadly) Shirley or Paul, but they will remember Shore and Crane, and that is the testament of something special.
Here’s something you don’t see very often nowadays - a US series season with twenty-seven episodes in it, all are presented on seven single-sided dual-layered discs. All seven open with that ubiquitous anti-piracy advert and, in addition, Disc Seven has a bunch of trailers (namely 24 Season Five, Arrested Development Season One, Prison Break Season One, NYPD Blue Seasons One-Four and The History Boys) one has to skip through before reaching its Main Menu. The menus themselves are rather snazzily designed. Accompanied by the looping theme, a scrolling background featuring the main characters zooms in on each in turn, wherein there follows a series of clips featuring said character in the episodes on that particular disc, an attention to detail which is very pleasing. Each disc aside from the last holds four episodes, with those episodes appearing on the Main Menu. Each episode has its own submenu, with options Play Episode, Language Selection and Scene Selection. Nicely designed all round, the only thing these discs are missing is a Play All function.
The episodes themselves and both featurettes are subtitled, although the opening trailers are not.
A bit grainy, with some surprisingly prevalent compression problems appearing occasionally, but to counter that the palate is rich and pleasant to watch and generally this is a pleasing transfer.
Despite only being 2.0, this is a fine track, with the music in particular coming across nice and crisply. Although Bill has a habit of mumbling his lines occasionally we can hear every word so all in all good stuff. That said, it's a hugely minor nitpick to note that on some episodes the reprise at the beginning cuts off the start of the actor's voice-over, so we hear "-viously on Boston Legal" so I don't think I'll bother mentioning it.
Legal Pad: The Words of Boston Legal(5:06)
Typical featurette in which Executive Producer Janet Leahy talks about the development of a script, using one of her own as an example. Anyone vaguely knowledgeable about television production will learn nothing new but it’s well meaning.
Exhibit A: The Look of Boston Legal (9:16)
A whistle-stop tour of the set, a brief lecture on how said set is lit by the DoP, and then a look at the outfits worn by some of the main characters make up this lightweight featurette.
There’s also information about logging onto “your entertainment destination” which, it turns out, are Fox’s websites. Who’d have thought it?
A highly entertaining series gets a couple of dull featurettes. Any chance of getting Bill and James in for a couple of commentaries next year chaps?
Last updated: 09/06/2018 08:50:53