First Time Viewing: “Boston Legal”

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For any creator to have success with one show is a miracle. But to be so gifted as to find success, numerous times, is something that was probably hard back 20 years ago, and even harder to do today. Just ask Aaron Sorkin or J.J. Abrams.

However, the brilliant mind of David E. Kelley managed to deliver numerous shows that were so varied and fun to watch. Not to mention he helped write for several others before becoming a successful creator and producer. Shows such as, “Picket Fences”, “Chicago Hope”, and most recently, to mild success, “Harry’s Law”.

Those show’s may have been incredibly fun, and received acclaim, but none is as memorable as his hit Fox show “Ally McBeal”. It’s actually been fully released on DVD and is streaming on Netflix. Lucky!

For me, while I had heard of all of these shows in some context, I never sought after them to see what they were all about. My love for, pretty much all things David E. Kelley, including the short lived CBS series “The Crazy Ones”, began with a powerful ABC drama “The Practice”. This would later extend to another Fox show of his called “Boston Public”.

While this is not about “The Practice”, it is because of this critically acclaimed and award winning show that the world was able to be introduced to the lawyers at a Boston law firm called Crane, Poole & Schmidt, in “Boston Legal”. Yes, this critically acclaimed and award winning show is in fact a spin-off.

The legal dramady began airing on ABC on Oct. 3, 2004. It would begin its run with high numbers in the ratings, critics approval, and later, several award nominations and wins. It would end after five seasons and 101 episodes on Dec. 8, 2008.

The principal cast members were James Spader (“The Blacklist”, “The Office”, “Stargate”), William Shatner (“$#*! My Dad Says”, “T.J. Hooker”, “Star Trek”), Candice Bergen (“House”, “The Women”, “Murphy Brown”), as they were present throughout the entire series’ run. The series also had several cast members go in and out of each season, for reasons that, I’m sure, are more annoying than anything.

The final two seasons (4-5), saw John Larroquette (“Deception”, “The 10th Kingdom”, “The John Larroquette Show”), join the cast, Christian Clemenson (“CSI: Miami”, “Veronica Mars”, “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.”), after guest staring in episodes beginning in season two until promoted to main cast, and Tara Summers (“Rake”, “Ringer”, “Damages”).

Season four saw the additions of Saffron Burrows (“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”, ” Deep Blue Sea”), who left after the season ended, with no real reason why, and Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest”, “Think Like A Man”, “Taken From Me”), who also left unexpectedly.

With the start of season three the cast grew to include, Gary Anthony Williams (“The Boondocks”, “Malcolm in the Middle”), who would leave the show after season four, Constance Zimmer (“House of Cards”, “The Newsroom”, “Entourage”), who left with no explanation after the third season, and Craig Bierko (“The Michael J. Fox Show”, “The Three Stooges”), who was written out before the end of the season. At least there was some closure there.

Season two saw the random additions of Ryan Michelle Bathe (“Army Wives”, “One for the Money”) and Justin Mentell (“G-Force”, “Palo Alto, CA”), who would later leave the show midway through the season. Julie Bowen (“Modern Family”, “Ed”), would join the cast in season two and stick around until the end of the third season, and later return as a guest star.

Lastly, there were the original cast members introduced in the first season. They included, among the three principal cast, Monica Potter (“Parenthood”, “Trust Me”, “Along Came a Spider”), who left after season one, Rhona Mitra (“The Last Ship”, “Strike Back”, “The Gates”), who originally began this character on “The Practice” and also left after the first season, Lake Bell (“Million Dollar Arm”, “Children’s Hospital”, “How to Make It in America”), who left the show early to do the show “Surface”, Mark Valley (“Crisis”, “Body of Proof”, “Harry’s Law”), who would stay on until the end of season three, and Rene Auberjonois (“Warehouse 13”, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), who began as a guest star but wound up as main cast after the first half of season one, where he’d stay until he left after season three. All of them would later return as guest stars.

Phew! That’s a lot of turnover in such a short amount of time, coupled with hardly any reason as to why they left. Sure, some of it could’ve been that the audience didn’t like some characters, but when you already don’t feature them that much, and then get rid of them, it does present a problem. You really start liking them, only to see very little of them and/or then they’re gone! Even “24” had better explained absences of characters, usually through killing them off. Geez. We would’ve been okay with that.

While a constantly rotating cast is the most frustrating thing about the show, as a whole, it doesn’t really keep you from loving the show and its dysfunctional, quirky characters.

Point, in fact, the quirkiness of several of the characters, especially Shatner’s and Clemenson’s characters, bring about a lot of the humor. All of the other characters, when interacting with each other, also bring out some very dark humor and plain humorous moments too, which is partly the appeal of this show. I found myself constantly laughing in every episode. The whole series. That’s hard to do. For me, I’ve found that when trying to be naturally, or somewhat naturally funny, a successful way of achieving this is through many quirky characters. The show “The Good Wife”, also benefits from this similar approach. Like “Boston Legal”, it’s got very quirky, and funny, judges presiding over cases, which then extends the comedy or uniqueness of the interactions.

But with all the humor and antics from each character, episode to episode, there’s a balance of reality. Bergen’s and Auberjonois’ characters really served as the practical characters, as Shatner’s Denny Crane, was not one that could easily be controlled. I felt it kept the show from becoming way too over the top and grounded it in the area of drama. They were the voices of reason.

Spader’s character Alan Shore held a similar kind of hold on Shatner, but not like the others. What you got from Spader was sarcastic, wise cracking, womanizer, who wasn’t afraid to test ethical boundaries, if not flat out break the rules.

*Sidebar, Your Honor* See what I did there? No? Okay. I have to pause here and comment on the two Alan Shores.

He debuted, like Mitra’s character, in the final season of “The Practice”. For some, it would make sense to introduce him, and continue with a regular final season. However, as “The Practice” went on, it wasn’t so much about those characters, as about Alan Shore. And this is what I mean by the two Alan Shores. His character in “The Practice was far more unethical, and slimy, yet interesting. You hated him, but wanted him to stand for the little guy, which he did. Move forward to season one of “Boston Legal”, and while he began as this Alan Shore, he didn’t stay that way. As the first season went on, he seemed to step in line more, no more bribing, or issuing threats. And come season two through five, that part of his personality became non-existent. Or, I’m just not remembering these instances. Also a possibility. Because of this, he became something else entirely, and that worked for “Boston Legal”, whereas, I always thought he never belonged on “The Practice”. I don’t completely chalk this to “character development” or “growth”, but simply the recreating of a familiar character.

Another great thing about this show, and the characters themselves, is that it was heavily rooted in current events. The characters each had such strong view points, and at times it was satirized or became a kind of caricature of everyday people, or something like that. Shatner’s character was a conservative Republican, and Spader’s was a liberal Democrat with outspoken views. Now, this could be a turn off, but really, I believe it helped elevate the show and made it even more different than “Ally McBeal” or “The Practice”.

Just about every episode, managed to feature some major political issue, a legal issue of the time, or a current event, and either use it as a major trial, and storyline in the episodes, or as a way to continue developing the individual characters. Season five had several references to the 2008 election, in which then Senator Barrack Obama was running for president against Senator John McCain. It was really quite fascinating to hear thoughts on an election presented through these characters.

Another thing, which makes the show, and could go either way for a viewer, is the way the characters got up on their soap box and began preaching on issues. Granted, this was expressly the point. Take for instance, an episode on the voting age and how it should be changed, No Child Left Behind, episodes involving the death penalty, torture to Guantanamo Bay inmates, the tobacco industry, religion, a woman wanting to sue God over the death of her husband, child welfare issues, national security issues, Megan’s Law and so many more.

Each of these issues, especially ones heard a lot about in the news, then and now, aren’t just great storytelling devices. They serve as a way to inform the general public, or at the very least, the dedicated viewers. One may already have an opinion on something formed, and are ready to stick with it, but this show manages to provide something new worth thinking about. Whether it’s new points, or facts you didn’t know before, you can gain something from what is presented.

When I watched a particular episode involving a mother who had lost her child in a car accident. She wanted to sue the high school for leading her child to being incredibly sleep deprived and thus crashing. The argument came down to this, kids aren’t actually learning anything in school, not the way they should be. The book “Doing School” by Denise Pope, was cited and served as a fine example for the story, and to support the issue at large. This led me to looking up the book and discovering it was worth reading. I later got the book and finished reading it, from the time of this writing, not that long ago. It was good. And I’m surprised by what I picked up from a simple legal dramedy. It wasn’t a news program. Just something that was on in primetime.

This show presented issues. For viewers, as I did, I hope people got or will get something from it other than just great entertainment.

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