William Shatner, Boston Legal
Credit: BOSTON LEGAL: Ron Tom

Is David E. Kelley listening to anyone but himself these days? The question occurred to me while watching last month’s Emmys, when both James Spader and William Shatner, accepting awards for their roles as Extreme Lawyers on Kelley’s Boston Legal, noted the inaccessibility of the show’s creator-writer. And it popped up again as this slick but tone-deaf series’ new season began.

Kelley cut his teeth on L.A. Law, a show that pioneered the combo of issue-driven fist-thumping and winky sexual high jinks that dominated late-’80s TV drama. He went on to create several series, but sometime during Ally McBeal he succumbed to affection for a single character type: the borderline boob/lunatic whose appalling behavior is redeemed by ultra-competence in the clutch. On Boston Legal, the just-short-of-institutionalization ticciness of Spader’s Alan Shore and Shatner’s Denny Crane marks them as heirs to Fyvush Finkel (on both Picket Fences and Boston Public) as well as Ally McBeal‘s Peter MacNicol and Greg Germann: They’re men (always men) advancing the principle that it’s okay to be a creep, a lech, or a loon as long as you get the job done, preferably in a last-ditch blowhard courtroom summation.

The tonal whiplash between above- and below-the-belt obsessions can be downright disorienting. We’re asked to mist up for 11 or 12 minutes at the rectitude of plotlines about Sudanese genocide or the lack of a U.S. assault-weapons ban, then turn our attention to a client who asks to sniff a lawyer’s panties, or Crane and Shore on a camping trip waking up in each other’s arms and panicking (nope, still not funny). It’s like being trapped in a room with a clown who makes you sit on a whoopee cushion, then lectures you.

A short argument for the defense: Spader has to be the most mesmerizingly peculiar actor to find himself ensnared in a TV series this side of Vincent D’Onofrio (and this side of D’Onofrio is the right one to be on). His Xanaxed, fey monotone suggests he’s got his own mysterious bead on his character, even if nobody else does. Although I’m lukewarm on Shatner’s brand of puffy self-amusement, this is clearly his Leslie Nielsen-post-Airplane! moment, and he’s working it well, even when Kelley milks the same nonjoke — Shatner’s Crane gets off on hearing his own name — every week. And as senior partner Shirley Schmidt, Candice Bergen elevates whatever she touches; given what she has to elevate, that’s some very graceful heavy lifting.

In supporting roles, Ed‘s Julie Bowen and two demographically calculated hotties (Ryan Michelle Bathe and Justin Mentell) have been brought in to replace last season’s not-quite-as-demographically-calculated hotties. Good luck to them, because they all deserve better than fart and boner jokes. For all its ”outrageousness,” Boston Legal is awfully old-fashioned; any given hour of sexual transgression on its time-slot rival Nip/Tuck makes this series look like a heaving, winded burlesque show, leering but prim. For a show about lawyers who don’t go by the book, Boston Legal adheres to it fatally. It’s a book Kelley should reopen, if only to discover that the rules he once helped write were long ago overturned on appeal.

Boston Legal
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