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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ames Spader, much to the ire of “Sopranos” fans (and to the surprise of Spader himself), just won his third Emmy for portraying defense attorney Alan Shore. I’ve been a Spader fan since “Pretty in Pink,” turning fanatic circa “sex, lies and videotape,” but due to a loathing for creator David E. Kelley’s “Ally McBeal,” I never gave “Boston Legal” much of a chance ‘til this DVD set. Whether James S. or James G. deserved the Emmy is worth debating (I could have the argument with myself), but based on the 24 episodes presented here, Spader definitely delivered an Emmy-worthy season of performances. Now I can stop bitching about his need to return to his movie roots and enjoy his work on “Boston Legal’s” upcoming season.
Courtroom TV can be a repetitive procedure, but it turns out “Boston Legal” is unlike most of the genre. It bears no resemblance to any legal reality, and a big part of appreciating it requires leaving “yeah, right” at the door. It’s funnier than “Night Court” and just as – if not more – absurd. Because it’s presented in a dramatic context, the absurdity almost overpowers, yet the show rarely plays the sour note.
The first episode was disorienting for a “Boston Legal” virgin, but by the second, I got with the program, and the two new additions to the legal firm of Crane, Poole & Schmidt no doubt helped. Jeffrey Coho (Craig Bierko) and Claire Simms (Constance Zimmer) arrive from the firm’s New York office, and as the pair learns the lay of this legal land, the viewer can do the same. Bierko’s Coho jumps headfirst into a high profile case in which a young man is accused of murdering a judge; the trial’s morphing, layered storyline plays out over five episodes, with Katey Sagal (the most versatile woman working in TV today) as a prominent guest star. By the time it concludes, you’ll (hopefully) be onboard for the rest of the season.
But this arcing story is atypical of “Boston Legal.” Bierko is not the star, the cases presented are generally ruled on within a given episode, and the most compelling lawsuits are handled by Spader’s Alan Shore. David E. Kelley is credited as a writer on the majority of the episodes; I’d guess he gets a bug up his ass when viewing the world around him and crafts these stories around his viewpoints, which he sums up in the form of Shore’s closing arguments. The speeches are beautifully choreographed dances between Kelley the writer and Spader the actor; the show’s all about these moments and they’re likely the reason Spader’s thrice won the Emmy. Not to imply this is only a platform for Kelley’s dogma, because he must be smarter than that.
“The Nutcrackers” features Alan fighting for a non-violent, upper middle-class white-supremacist family’s right to retain custody of their twin daughters. As much as he abhors what the family stands for, he realizes the girls are well taken care of in every other respect, and therefore he has no choice but to work his magic. The genius of the writing here is in taking a topic that most will agree is a social cancer, then proceeding to show that racists have rights too, and are entitled to raise little racists if they so desire. We may not like it, but it’s that very freedom that America was built on. When Alan wins the case – as he almost always does – the twin girls sing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” He turns to them without missing a beat and says, “You do know that Michael was a gay Jew from Mexico?” (That may not be true, but it’s a grand moment nonetheless.)
Even though cases often go way over the top, “Boston Legal” finds time to be poignant, not just in its closing arguments but from many sides. “Angel of Death,” much of which was shot on location in New Orleans, has Alan defending a doctor who humanely euthanized five patients in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. “Fine Young Cannibal” tackles homelessness and the lengths to which a starving person can be driven. In “Son of the Defender,” a ghost from Denny Crane’s (William Shatner) youth shows up to threaten not only him but also the entire firm.
Ahhhhhhh, yes: Denny Crane. How did I get this far without mentioning him? It seems Denny Crane is a hero to many, perhaps because The Shat plays him. By all logic, The Shat’s career should’ve ended years ago, yet it’s miraculously stronger than ever. This makes The Shat ideal for breathing life into Denny Crane -- a man whose existence is defined only by the strength of his past. Crane’s sole purpose is to provide a comedic counterpoint to Alan Shore. The pair are best friends and every episode ends with them sitting on a balcony, discussing issues both important and trivial. Why are they best friends? Shore is stimulatingly liberal while Crane is charmingly conservative. They’ve nothing in common aside from scotch, cigars and a lust for women. The best answer to any question about Denny Crane is perhaps rooted in a personal observation of mine: Republicans are a hell of a lot more fun to party with than Democrats. Denny Crane brings the party to “Boston Legal” so Shore can sit back and analyze why the party is fun. Candice Bergen’s Shirley Schmidt is the anchor whose job is to give balance where there otherwise wouldn’t be any. She does it well, even in the face of knowing that Denny bangs a Real Doll sculpted in her image and Alan yearns to bang the Real Deal.
There are plenty more characters to discuss, such as Gary Anthony Williams’ cross-dressing, endlessly engaging and always sympathetic Clarence Bell. Or Meredith Eaton-Gilden’s bitchy Bethany Horowitz, the dwarf Denny Crane falls for. Yes, “Boston Legal” thrives on its acceptance of the bizarre, but nobody is written, explored or acted tighter than Christian Clemenson’s Jerry Espenson. Jerry is afflicted by Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of autism that manifests OCD-like symptoms. What makes Jerry an awkward human being also makes him a potentially brilliant lawyer. It’s nothing less than rewarding to watch Clemenson take this man down a very specific path over the course of the season (he’s in about half the episodes), and it’s worth recommending this box set for his journey alone.
Special Features: While some commentaries from Kelley or Spader would likely rock, my guess is these guys say what they feel is necessary through writing and acting. All this set offers up are two short featurettes. “Out of Order?” covers some of the many judges throughout the season; Shelley Berman, who also plays Larry David’s dad on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is a treasure. “Character Witness” is devoted to exploring three of the season’s most noteworthy personalities and chatting with the actors who play them: Jerry Espenson, Bethany Horowitz, and Lincoln Meyer…and, crap, I just realized that I never got around to mentioning Lincoln anywhere else in the review. Oh, well. If you’re intrigued by this review, you’ll meet him, and once you meet the guy, you’ll never forget him.