Boston Legal

I need my pain.

By Matt Springer
October 08, 2004

We all know why readers of this site would have any interest whatsoever in Boston Legal, the new David E. Kelley hour-long that premiered October 3 on ABC. It’s not the potential for dancing CG babies, and it’s not the hope that Jeri Ryan will strut back onto the airwaves wearing form-fitting garments.

For geeks, this show is all about the Shatner. He’s why you’d watch in the first place, and for some of you, he’s the only reason you’d bother to keep watching.

Allow me to offer the shocking pronouncement that Shatner isn’t the best thing about this fun Sunday night diversion. Not even close. Instead, it’s James Spader who lights up Boston Legal with wild, wacky scenery chewing. I only laughed ONCE at a classic histrionic Shatner line reading. In contrast, Spader’s antics had me giggling all night.

Part of that may arise from the simple fact that the writers don’t seem to “get” who Shatner’s character, Denny Crane, really is yet. He’s clearly some kind of mentor to Spader’s Alan Shore, and he’s regarded as a legend in the Boston legal community. But we haven’t really seen him exhibit that much outrageous behavior; sure, he talked Philip Baker Hall down from putting a bullet in his gullet, but the scene plays more REAL than camp, and so the Shatner of it is seriously downplayed.

(And while it’s credited to Denny Crane, the giddy cheer-in-your-seats twist in the premiere episode, when the Reverend Al Sharpton shows up to deliver a classic Kelley courtroom speech and saves Alan Shore’s trial, doesn’t really have much to do with Shatner.)

Overall, in both writing and performance, Boston Legal gives us a very unShatner Shatner. He’s playing his cards pretty close to the vest in the show’s premiere, and all indications are that he may never rise to the bait and give us the wild, wacky Shat we’ve come to love, if not truly KNOW.

Meanwhile, Spader gets to chomp and romp his way through scene after scene, delivering quirky bon mots and executing crazy stunts to win cases. When Spader shows up at a bad dad’s office with photos that incriminate the sleazeball with a hooker, all so his firm can win the custody battle between the dad and his wife, it’s trashy fun. And when Spader spars with the pretty boy lawyer who seems to be shaping up as his on-screen adversary, MORE trashy fun. Hell, it’s trashy fun all around whenever Spader’s on screen. In some ways, he’s the new Shatner, and he makes the show a blast to watch.

Sadly, other than Spader and Shatner, the show holds little interest. There’s less of Kelley’s trademark romantic entanglements than you’d expect, and the bits we do get seem tired and forced. Most of the characters who aren’t Spader and Shatner get little meaty screen time, although here’s hoping the writers realize the treasure they have in Rene Auberjonois and make him a series regular post haste. The Shatner/Spader/Auberjonois trifecta would be so frickin’ sweet for fans of guilty pleasure television. Other than those three, however, the show offers random nameless attractive people doing little of interest, sleepwalking their way through “crazy” cases in a show format that hasn’t been fresh since the glory days of L.A. Law.

So if you’re willing to sit through the occasional snoozer of a scene featuring some pretty nothing just for the privilege of watching James Spader having the time of his life, Boston Legal is the show for you.

Otherwise, you might want to rent Star Trek V and reflect on what might have been had Shatner and the writers embraced the full mad potential of one of Hollywood’s great overactors returning to series television.