The Practice‘s offspring enjoys a Season One DVD release, while we wait for more of David E. Kelley’s productions to surface. Boston Legal is a fine entry into Kelley’s canon of work and Kev finds out if the R1 release is up to scratch.
Since 1986 with L.A. Law, (created by Steven Bochco) David E. Kelley has paved the way for legal dramas as we see them today, and for twenty years he’s been behind the best of the best. He’s rarely been touched by anyone else in the business and it’s no doubt due to his real life expertise on the subject matter that he takes on. Having been a practicing lawyer in Boston during the late seventies to early eighties he garnered enough experience to be able to write fully fledged scripts, which in turn helped to elevate the aforementioned smash hit television series. The machinations of civil law practice are often fascinating within the worlds that Kelley creates, and aiding them are often memorable ensemble casts which prove to be a key in guaranteeing his series’ further success. Furthermore Boston obviously plays a huge part in Kelley’s life; it’s clear that his ties are personal enough to have him use the city as a backdrop for most of his popular creations. The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston public and the basis for this review Boston Legal all share this in common. The city, located in Massachusetts, is often a character in itself; it plays a huge role in fleshing out these dramas through the use of stunning vista shots and attractive on-location photography. In addition one of the biggest factors that links all of Kelley’s shows is the presence of quirky, often surreal humour that works in tandem with their serious elements, not to mention very catchy scores, which here carries a bombastic soul/funk vibe.
And so, if by any chance you’re familiar with any one of David E. Kelley’s shows, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Boston Legal. It is important to note however that the series is a direct spin-off from The Practice (1997-2004). This was a series that took itself in an interesting direction, primarily because it dealt with the everyday lives of defence attorneys. This hadn’t been tackled all too often, certainly not on a regular basis, and as such it was a considerably dark series that dealt with lawyers trying to maintain the innocence of criminals. That would have these people questioning themselves about right and wrong, facing many morals and putting up with a judicial system that has to go both ways. It was one of those sides of the law that couldn’t be shunned and it made for some very interesting viewing. When the series began to wane during its seventh season new cast members were brought in to try and revitalise it; James Spader, William Shatner, Rhona Mitra and Lake Bell were written in as Kelley began work on Boston Legal, just as The Practice was coming to an end after eight seasons. Don’t fret if you’ve never seen The Practice, as Kelley’s latest creation does well to establish itself early on and avoids alienating its audience.
Boston legal follows several attorneys who work at Civil Law firm Crane, Poole, & Schmidt. When Edwin Poole (Larry Miller) suddenly has a major breakdown he’s sent off to hospital while the company undergoes a little re-evaluation. Recent acquisition and head of litigation Alan Shore (James Spader), formerly of Young, Berluti, & Frutt, works under the guidance of his good friend and co-founder of the company Denny Crane (William Shatner). Shore is known for his unorthodox methods of working, taking on undesirable cases that would ordinarily see him as an underdog. His methods quickly catch the attention of several employees who are quick enough to judge his actions. Ex-Marine Brad Chase (Mark Valley) is brought in as a mediator to keep a close eye on Shore and Crane, while three female employees: junior partner Lori Colson (Monica Potter), Tara Wilson (Rhona Mitra) and associate Sally Heep (Lake Bell) seem to be doing enough to gain the attention of Shore, who seems incapable of sticking with one woman. This soon becomes very complicated as several parties become entangled in webs of lust, while their cases at hand need more attention. Elsewhere Paul Lewiston (René Auberjonois) is struggling to maintain a reputable firm, which eventually forces him to take drastic action. So it’s time to follow the lives of more crazy attorneys as they take on even crazier cases in David E. Kelley’s latest hit.
Boston Legal is one of Kelley’s more finely balanced shows; it successfully blends comedy, drama, real life politics and current affairs so that overall its impact is reflective of the world today. It comes somewhere in-between the zany exploits of Ally McBeal and the harder-edged The Practice, which makes it a compelling hybrid. All of Kelley’s series have been entertaining in their own unique way and Boston Legal is no different. However the majority of cases we see here reflect modern day woes with pin sharp accuracy. Trials involving racial discrimination, the war of terror, media censorship, sexual equality, CJD and execution within the state of Texas to name but several give the series some seriously pressing concerns to deal with; the back and forth banter favouring and arguing against each is as fierce as any other debate you might see on the news, and the moral and ethical fibres that make up each one are often questioned from different standpoints and prove to be quite intriguing. Amidst this we have plenty of bizarre cases too, which just about every Kelley show has to offer, and this in turn makes proceedings a whole lot more fun. Sticking to the usual structure we often see two cases being tried during a single episode, which has never been problematic for Kelley, and as usual they give a far greater sense of variety. The timing in writing, when squeezed into 45 minutes, is crucial and ultimately successful; there’s never a moment when things drag on for too long or threaten to halt in the court. In terms of this the pacing is spot on, but it’s during the show’s infancy where things are a little shakier.
Of course it’s not just legal trials we’re looking at here but also the everyday ones that these characters face as people. As with the majority of Kelley’s productions there’s a larger sense of humanity at play as we witness many internal conflicts within the office. It’s here where Kelley often uses the ace up his sleeve. This entails, once more, bringing into play a sizeable ensemble of characters, each of whom has their own quirks and flaws. One thing about David E. Kelley’s creations is that he eagerly plays around with his casts; sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse. Certainly Ally McBeal lost it’s way after a few seasons when characters were replaced and so on, and with Boston Legal we can see him cut his teeth early on in the process to try and establish the kind of show he really wants. Naturally these lawyers aren’t perfect, even if they consider themselves to be. Furthermore their relationships often revolve around each other, which goes to show that outside of the environment they work in they rarely have time to associate with those other than legal practitioners. So we have a relatively tight-knit group who often share similiar concerns, though remain conflicted, and as mentioned earlier it’s a little difficult to divide the time between so many when this happens. However, Kelley instantly shows us who is who and what their purpose on the show is. More interestingly perhaps is that he doesn’t singularly concentrate on a main protagonist. Often we’ll see Monica Potter’s character Lori receive a lot more attention than say Alan Shore or Denny Crane, while Sally and Brad tend to be sidelined for smaller plot details.
Staying with these characters then, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into. While there isn’t a single protagonist Alan Shore and Denny Crane seem to carry the most weight, and with good reason. Shore is who Paul Lewiston refers to as a “Rain Maker”; he’s unscrupulous, his methods are unconventional (intimidation, blackmailing) and he regularly harasses the female employees at the firm. In addition he’s highly smug and eccentric and plays on the fact that Crane, Poole, & Schmidt would be nothing without him. Crane is more complicated. Once the greatest lawyer of all time, or so he’d tell you, he’s now becoming the joke of the company with his embarrassing antics which involve skirt chasing, childish games and the egotistical repetition of saying his own name as if to signify great importance. He’s paranoid and outspoken, to the point that he often jeopardises his cases, but underneath his brash exterior there’s a fragile man who is trying to come to terms with his own mortality as a younger generation heads up the ranks. Shore and Crane are great friends and the only two who understand each other; they bind the episodes together, usually closing them on a poignant sentiment. Without a doubt they’re the main draw to the series; James Spader and William Shatner deliver powerhouse performances for what might arguably be their greatest roles to date. In 2004 both won Emmy Awards (Lead Actor and Guest Actor) for their stints on The Practice, while 2005 saw them repeat their success, this time on Boston Legal. Spader is just wonderful, showing an impressive range for such a conflicted character, whilst Shatner sheds his image completely for a role that couldn’t be any more tailor made. There’s always been a lot of mocking going on with William Shatner in the past, whether it’s for his singing, toupee wearing or odd acting methods, but it’s quite clear that with age comes humility, and with the new millennium he’s found his calling. He’s often played fun characters in movies such as Airplane and Loaded Weapon and his sense of comic timing is put to great use in Boston Legal, with some priceless facial expressions. Moreover his dramatic delivery is far from anything else he’s done, and with a character that could just as well be a metaphor for his own life his performance seems to resonate all the more for it.
We then reach some of the more grounded characters with Tara, Brad, Lori, Sally and Lewiston. At some point all of their paths have crossed in various ways; usually through dating at some point. While Brad, Tara and Sally get plenty of exposure they’re not quite as fleshed out as Lori, who seems to be a catalyst here. There are times when she rarely appears and others when she’s given major cases to deal with, which often turn into personal ones that see her facing tough decisions. She also shares plenty of friction with Shore, being the only woman in the office to have not slept with him at some point, and who seems to carry a genuine amount of respect for the firm she works for. Brad is certainly the most fun of the others mentioned, mainly due to the constant rivalry between himself and Shore, which often sees him place wagers in order to get the better of a situation; there’s also the whole best friends who want to be more scenario when Brad makes his feelings known to Lori. When it comes to Lewiston we have a character that is very serious; he has little tolerance for Shore’s methods and Crane’s presence, and yet he knows they are both vital to the company’s success. His threats are often idol and his frustrations are high, which prompts him to call in co-founder Shirley Schmidt for the latter half of the season (Candice Bergen). Although Schmidt’s background is one of lesser developed elements we do know that she once had a fling with Crane and that she’s ruthless enough to see actual change within the business. Her introduction proves to be detrimental to some of the employees’ positions, which means that there are some very un-friendly confrontations ahead.
Another familiar element is the recurring character; on more than one occasion we see several come back to shake up things. Co-founder Edwin Poole is still going through a major breakdown, while Shore seems to have a few unlucky relationships. His ex-girlfriend Christine begins to stalk him after he gets her out of a mental institution, while his “friend” Bernard can’t seem to stop killing people in order to get attention. Crane’s son Donny (played surprisingly well by Freddie Prinze, Jr) turns up after twelve years to see his dad, who he wishes to follow in the business and then there’s Reverend Al Sharpton, playing himself, who is at times called in as a “rabbit in the hat.”
For Season One a lot of developments take place, several components are re-jiggled and minor changes see to it that the series gets on track early on. The humour, while certainly running into darker territories is often astutely delivered and a little adult in approach, which if anything paints its figures in less than desirable colours. And yet there’s a lot of playfulness to Boston Legal; it can be serious without taking itself too seriously and it fully embraces the absurdities of life, giving us characters who need to be a little crazy in order to get through their often difficult jobs.
Seventeen episodes make up Season One, as follows:
Still Crazy After All These Years
Catch and Release
Change of Course
An Eye for An Eye
Truth Be Told
A Greater Good
From Whence We Came
It Girls and Beyond
’Til We Meet Again
Let Sales Ring
Death Be Not Proud
20th Century Fox brings us the first season of Boston Legal on a five-disc collection that comes housed in the increasingly popular slim pack casing. Three amaray cases, with an attractively designed card slip-cover makes for happy shelf space. The discs themselves are fairly simple, each one containing the same, animated menu and disappointedly lacking a “Play All” option.
The series is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio which has been given anamorphic enhancement. For a recent television series this looks as good as it should do, coming across as being very lively, with a wonderfully colourful and natural palette and plenty of strong detail throughout, although there’s a slight softness during some wider shots, as in most cases. The only factor that lets this down somewhat is aliasing, which can often be seen of office blinds for example. Overall this is a fine transfer that compliments the series very well.
For sound we get a 2.0 Dolby Digital English track. As to be expected it sounds fine. There are no drop outs or distortions, while a little direction is used and dialogue comes through crisp and clear. The soundstage isn’t aggressively tackled, but it doesn’t need to be. Everything here sounds natural for its television roots, with the soundtrack also coming across as being very energetic.
Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
Court is Now in Session: How Boston Legal Came to Be (11:33)
Although the title leads you to believe otherwise this doesn’t actually give an in-depth run down of how the series came about. There’s very little mention of other Kelley shows, especially The Practice. Rather this just looks at casting, with interviews from David E. Kelley, Producer Bill D.Elia and a few cast members. We get a little info on William Shatner’s casting, which is truly inspired when Kelley describes the kind of character Crane needed to be and just how well it seems to have mirrored Shatner’s own life (although he doesn’t specifically address that). There’s also a little mention of current events, but not much else to make this as interesting as it could have been.
An Unlikely Pair: Alan Shore and Denny Crane (5:20)
This very brief featurette involves Spader and Shatner discussing their characters’ relationship with one another. It’s far too short to offer a whole lot, but there’s clear enthusiasm throughout.
Deleted Scenes from Pilot Episode “Head Cases” (15:38)
David E. Kelley discusses how he came to re-write the pilot episode, after the original draft was a bit too funny and it needed to have some darker elements. Following on from this we’re given four lengthy scenes from the very first episode. These mainly deal with Denny Crane, Edwin Poole and Tara, offering quite a serious tone and opening up a couple of characters in ways that we don’t see otherwise.
Boston Legal takes a few episodes before it really gets into gear, but once it does it makes for some extremely compelling viewing. The performances here are simply brilliant all round, while the quality of the writing remains consistent, as with most of Kelley’s previous work. Funny, dramatic and socially relevant, Boston Legal is one series that deserves to be checked out immediately.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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