Five reasons why Boston Legal is quite probably the best programme on TV

Copyright:  Stephen Crofts


First of all, there’s so much in it.  Take the TV hour (probably 42 minutes) of last night’s episode (Channel 7, 8 September 2008).  In terms of intellectual substance, it includes legal and ethical debate, plus political analysis, about euthanasia; and political debate about nuclear deterrence.  There is also discussion of human and ethical issues around Alzheimer’s.  In terms of character relationships:  Shirley, the legal firm’s principal, having won the legal right to euthanasia, watches her father’s death; she and a senior partner, Carl, may rekindle their romantic relationship; and Jerry, an acutely nervous and diffident lawyer, having spoken honestly at arbitration of his desire to impress his new girlfriend by spraying her, not with a date-rape drug, but with his own confidence-boosting pheromone concoction, effects a restoration of their tentative relationship; and two other lawyers, the central characters of Alan and Denny, confirm a deep friendship – they call it “love”, though it’s homo-social, not gay – in the face of the latter’s onset of Alzheimer’s.  In terms of cases, one (proposing a nuclear deterrent for Nantucket) is lost, though it was never imagined it could succeed, one (the father’s right to die in dignity) is won, and the arbitration is successfully resolved.


Secondly, it’s such fun – and often laugh-out–loud witty and hilarious.  Consider the delightfully absurd improbabilities of a legal firm, even in Boston, which takes on cases like the Nantucket nuclear deterrent; which is genially collegial, has hardly any backstabbing, supports a fair number of intra-mural affairs, and is concerned with left liberal human values; and which employs chronically nervous Jerry, and another lawyer, Clarence, who moonlights as a drag artist, as well as Denny Crane, the imperturbably egoistic seventy-something character, who most weeks can be relied upon to shoot at somebody, or try to race someone off, or both.  And judges presiding over the cases include one improbably young attractive blonde women and one pedantically eccentric wacko.  The music contributes greatly to the sense of fun.  The signature tune is so joyously discordant it makes me laugh out loud.  And Danny Lux’s raids on the great American songbook play old songs and tunes hilariously just off-centre to the dramatic moment.  Witness the playing of The Last Post in the 25 August episode immediately after Denny and Alan, having bizarrely decided to join the Coastguards, spectacularly fail to gain acceptance because Alan cannot swim, and both almost drown! 

Thirdly, Boston Legal can be touching, indeed moving, in its pathos, and can modulate delicately between the registers of comedy and pathos.  Last night’s episode had a higher quotient of pathos (father’s death, onset of Alzheimer’s) than usual.  And it had a truly daring transition from joy and renewal to death:  cutting direct from Jerry kissing with his newly reconciled girlfriend in a bar, to the morphine drip which will shortly euthanase Shirley’s father.  Until I see it again I can’t analyse fully how and why it works, beyond noting the slow pace of the camera tilt down the drip.  The pathos is character-based, and thus draws on the rich incremental characterisation typical of serial drama, as well as on the seriously experienced actors in the three major roles:  Candice Bergen as Shirley, James Spader as Alan and William Shatner (yes, he of  Star Trek!) as Denny.  It’s largely the pathos of Denny’s ageing and incipient Alzheimer’s that saves his sexist, big-noting, gun-toting, Republican-voting character from being repugnant. 

Fourthly, the programme is so aesthetically rich.  It reminds you that television can be a visual and a musical, as well as a verbal, medium.  Not that I’d ever downplay its writing:  the scripts of David E Kelley and Lawrence Broch – plus three script editors – are masterpieces of wit and conciseness.  Consider this exchange from two weeks ago.  Carl is telling Shirley that their romantic relationship is not the best either of them could have.  “Do I make sense?” he asks.  “A little too much”, she ruefully replies.  Eight words speak volumes about needs and idealism in relationships, and about her feelings.  Some aspects of Danny Lux’s music have been mentioned already – though not that of cueing audience responses, which it does crucially and very economically.  On top of lapidary scripts and invigorating music, however, Boston Legal serves notice that television can have visual style which enhances the drama rather than distracting from it in the manner of recent fads for glossy, chi-chi interiors, wobbly hand-held cameras, and saturated colour.  Last night’s episode offers two examples of very telling camera movement and shot selection which heighten the impact of the script.  Both concern Denny’s Alzheimer’s.  During his passionately argued closing representing Shirley on euthanasia for her father, Alan almost breaks down as he introduces the topic of a close friend with early Alzheimer’s, for whom one day he will have to be the one who advises on when it is time to die.  Alan’s closing segues back to Shirley’s father.  At its end the camera pans devastatingly to the back of the courtroom, revealing Denny, who was never expected to be there.  A cut would have broken the spatial continuity, and visually diffused the shock of the revelation; the pan stresses the human continuity between the two men.  Later, on the office terrace, they discuss what Denny heard in court.  Their terrace discussions which conclude each episode refreshingly vary the dreary televisual norm of shot/reverse-shot, but this time there is a shot which is initially impossible to place in the scene’s visual field.  It is a close-up angled to isolate a hand reaching out, such that the moving gesture – a hand of friendship – is given primacy before the agent or the recipient is identified.  A moment later, a reframe identifies it as Denny’s hand thanking Alan.        


Fifthly, on a political note, Boston Legal continues the tradition of Law and Order in that both are left liberal and interested in intellectual issues.  But this comedic version of the left liberal law show demonstrates how liberating it can be to dispense with police procedural plots, legal argumentation, and the need to concede, as Assistant DA Jack McCoy often does, that the law must be upheld even where it fails to do justice in individual cases.  For in Boston Legal, juries and judges are frequently persuaded by brilliant closing arguments from Alan and Shirley in support of wronged victims, and against corporate greed and governmental collusion in it:  victories which allow viewers to believe that justice can be effected in courts of law.  The programme taps into that utopian strain of comedy that Richard Dyer once praised as a joyous affirmation of life and hope, however utopian that may be.  If comedy is the salve of grim political times – and Boston Legal often takes a stand against what the Bush administration has done to the USA – then this comedic law show may be just what we need!

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