Saturday, December 27, 2008

TELEVISION- Star Trek Legal

Barring some catastrophic change of plan, ABC has aired its last episode of Boston Legal. Further adding credence to people who say that any hint of intelligence is being systematically expunged from American television. In fact, admitting Boston Legal one of the more intelligent programs on television is perhaps all the proof that is needed. It is, at its core, just another lawyer show. And the claim that television network execs think that the world is comprised of doctors, lawyers, and cops has been being made since I was a kid and is just as valid today. But it is a lawyer show involved with something more important than who killed their husband this week, even it is painfully liberal in its orientation and deals with important issues with all the subtlety that a meat cleaver uses on a rack of ribs.

In classic David E. Kelly style, the show is quirky to the point of distraction. One character has an exaggerated form of Asperger's syndrome and squawks and burps and hoots as low comic relief. The male leads are misogynistic letches who practice law when they can fit it into the space between sniffing the closest crotch and getting to the next. The judges are the embodiment of character flaws magnified by whim and power. Lower level associates are known by their weirdity: the cross-dresser, the ex-madam, the hair-shirt ex-marine, the elderly woman who commits the occasional murder because she likes the attention. At least there are no co-ed bathrooms or remote control toilets.

Oddity for its own sake has always been a failing of Kelly’s television shows, in my opinion. But here it’s saved by some of the best acting in any television show, past or present. Even though the show is very much an ensemble piece, James Spader is the center and the anchor. Spader’s Alan Shore is subtle, heroic, principled, troubled, and quick witted. Although he is not in control of the firm (in fact, he’s not even a partner) and is openly despised by many of the other characters, he is indulged because he is so good at what he does. Spader conveys intelligence better than perhaps anyone acting today and the character is almost always the smartest person in the room. Indeed, when he delivers the closing argument for whichever case is the Maguffin of the week you know you have reached the climax of the episode.

Close behind Spader is William Shatner, who plays Denny Crane- founding partner and not shy about mentioning that his name is on the door. Or mentioning his name at any other time. If Spader is the rational mind of the firm, Crane is both Id and Ego. To reinforce this idea, he is almost devoid of rational thought and suffers from “mad cow”, a whimsical sort of Alzheimer's disease that seems to be just a put-on until at the end of the series we find out that he is actually developing Alzheimer's. Shatner is a revelation in the role, showing real acting chops here that few would have expected. (Nicolas Mayer, director of Star Trek movies II and VI, once said that Shatner was pretty good after you had done enough takes to wear him out so that he quit “acting”.) The character is obviously based on what you would expect Shatner to be in real life if all you knew about him were the things written and said by the other actors on the original Star Trek. He’s a lecherous egomaniac of questionable talent who maintains his own inflated self image at any cost, especially if that cost is to someone else. Yet the fact that Shatner can make the character lovable in spite of his having virtually every character flaw you could imagine shows why people love the actor. And why Shatner remains continuously employed while other actors who have taken genre leads early in their careers have been branded with those characters forever. (George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Adam West, Kier Dulla, Mark Hamell, Carrie Fisher, and even Leonard Nimoy must look at Shatner, and Harrison Ford, with envy and awe.)

The mention of Shatner's work on Star Trek is not incidental. If you are a Star Trek fan, you should have been watching Boston Legal. Around our house we even called it Star Trek Legal for the first two seasons. It’s like a reunion show. In addition to Captain Kirk in the lead, Odo runs the firm, Quark is a judge, Neelix has a case, and Seven of Nine shoots a stalker. In fact, there’s a web page dedicated to the Star Trek cast connections with Boston Legal. But it also skims the best actors from other TV shows for guest roles. Henry Gibson, Katey Sagal, Michael J. Fox, Bess Armstrong, Betty White, Gail O’Grady, Tom Selleck, Howard Hessman, Heather Locklear and many others show up for one or two of several episodes. The main cast also recalls so many great old television shows with actors such as Candice Bergen and John Larroquette (as the polar opposite of Dan Fielding).

But notice something else about this cast list, something alluded to in one of the final episodes, almost every one of them is over 40. It’s only one of the things that makes Boston Legal more interesting than the regular TV show. Another is that they don’t pretend that they aren’t on television. Breaking the fourth wall is as dependable as Alan Shore’s monologue, each happens at least once in every episode. In one episode Shirley Schmidt mentions that it’s a “sweeps week”. During the last season the characters mention that the series is ending in one way or another. This in joke is carried one step further by the fact that some characters seem to know they are characters in a TV show and others don’t. Existential humor in a mainstream television drama. How often do you see that?

Far less often, unfortunately, than we Boston Legal’s scripts preaching at the audience. I’m not adverse to entertainment dealing with issues. In fact, I think entertainment that doesn’t try to teach or advocate can’t reach the level of being called “art”. But a lot of people don’t like to mix their politics and entertainment. Here the slant is decidedly liberal, which seems to be the trend in television (though not for the reason most conservatives would think*) and if you are conservative and can’t stand to watch the liberal viewpoint win every week then you need not apply. Conservatives do get to see their side defended but the verdict is rarely in real doubt and West Wing did it better. Denny Crane is the weekly surrogate but he is a clown and his presence is the best argument that the writers (primarily David Kelly at 6 times as many scripts as anyone else) don’t take conservatism seriously.

But even if Boston Legal wasn't your cup of tea, it was a well made, well written, well acted piece of work. Something that continues to become more rare as the kudzu of BS reality shows and endless crime procedurals that all seem to have the same characters with different people playing them chokes the life out of the medium. It was one of only about three shows that I watch and I'm going to miss it.

* I honestly don't know what Conservatives think causes movie and television people to be more liberal than the general population but I've never really found it strange. The impulse to create art is an oddity in humanity. People who become artists, musicians, actors, directors, or any other artistic endevour usually are familiar with alienation. Much of their creative impulse deals with these feelings of alienation. As a result, it seems only natural that they would be more tolerant of people who are "different" since they could more easily identify with that feeling of strangeness.

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