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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What is the ‘everyday’ of everyday television?

I was reading Patrice Petro’s Aftershocks of the New (2002) this morning since I’m working on a paper about distraction and boredom and I came across this:

…this collection hopes to contribute to the larger task of restoring richness, complexity and vitality to our understanding of feminism and film history in the recent past as well as today. And it does so precisely by being attentive to the aftershocks of our own modernity, and to the ways in which they continue to reverberate in our culture, our writing, and our everyday lives. (12)

And then the camel’s back broke. What is the distinction being made in this and countless other examples in film/tv/cultural studies between our lives and our ‘everyday’ ones? I detect that it might be different – or is it? – from an understanding of  ‘everyday’ that, say, Zavattini had.

‘Television’ and ‘everyday’ are also frequently seen together and while I can grasp that television might be something one consumes on a daily basis (like our daily bread or the daily newspaper), what I want to isolate is the precise force of adding ‘everyday’ to it. I assume this is about more than distinguishing regular kinds of television from event television. And while many shows establish regular patterns in content, few that I remember seemed to cultivate a sense of the everyday – most TV shows I watch seek the distinction of standing out, and attempt to recruit attention precisely by being interesting, not ordinary or everyday. 

 I suspect there are nuances to the usage of ‘everyday’ (or even ‘the everyday’- whatever that is) that I’m missing.  Readers are invited to help me out in no more than a paragraph.

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Guy Rundle and Nazi Television

Guy Rundle is without doubt the one of the finest political and cultural commentator/journalists working today. His coverage of the US elections for the Australian electronic magazine Crikey is worth the price of subscription alone. A couple of things he’s written about television recently have grabbed my attention as they capture something that has some resonances with the scholary world of screen studies where I spend a lot of my time. Here’s an example:

 American TV has a dual character, thanks to the provision of public access TV channels in the basic cable packages that practically everybody has. Flick through the list and it’s a roll-call of lumpy people in cheap clothes sitting in a classroom somewhere and talking about school board issues in a perfectly reasonable way. Flick further through to the news networks and it’s like the Nazis won the war. Shiny, shiny people with hard edges and ultraviolet teeth, swapping fifteen-second soundbites in a parody of debate. (Crikey, 21 April 2008)

Clearly in his mind here is Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning which Rundle reviewed a few days later for the Spiked Review of Books. In that review he again points to aspects of television that seem fascistic:

The hardbody culture of the gym, its combination of narcissism and power worship, the ritualised collective celebration of scorn and contempt in shows like Pop Idol, the Brown government’s engineering of a sense of ‘Britishness’ combined with its ever-extended attempt to reshape social desires, the unpeopling of the obese and smokers – who doesn’t have the odd moment of wondering whether the Nazis in fact won the war?

Rundle does not in fact endorse Goldberg’s sense of the ubiquity of fascism, indeed he likens the analysis to 1970s post-structuralist criticism of Foucault and Deleuze where ‘reality itself and the unified subject [was] essentially fascistic’. This reminded me of the ways in which such theories strongly informed the reading of Hollywood cinema as illusionistic and therefore fascistic, with several accounts noting that because most Nazi films have a fictional narrative like most Hollywood films we can therefore assume that the latter are fascistic. It might seem strange now that such drivel, dressed up in prose that was indigestible, held a generation of (some not all) screen studies scholars in thrall to its exotic insight. However, it is clear from Rundle’s merely descriptive and brief glance at American television that something is missing from contemporary screen studies (or cultural studies or television studies or media studies – however you wish to slice it) which has missed what for him and the rest of us is in plain view. Most – I’m tempted to say all, but can’t claim to have read all – of the studies of reality television, for example, ignore the ways in which these shows recruit nurture and pattern regimes of contempt, mockery and derision both internally among contestants and studio audience and among their viewers. What are we to make of the exortations to health, self-control and financial discipline that the BBC and other public service broadcasters regularly schill in their schedules and on their websites? Or the aestheticisation of rebelliousness and resistance that is a feature both of television studies scholarship and the genres it watches?

I don’t believe television is fascistic. However, the aspects that Rundle – in a piece of journalism – identifies seem to be important ones that point to the growing intensification of mysticism, aestheticism and narcissism as key components of our screens.  

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Peter Oborne: the finest voice in broadcasting

Sound can be crucial to our experience of screen: it can extend textures and meaning, deepen space, enhance or question the sense of what we see. As a regular radio listener (although it has to be said my consumption of radio is mostly non-broadcast radio: that is downloaded podcasts of radio programmes), it often seems strange to me that the issue of radio aesthetics has not been as prominent as it might be. This is not to say radio has been ignored in, say, academia as there are a number of fine works of scholarship on the topic. It was rather that I wouldn’t be sure where to go in order to find something that might provide a critical model for what I want to say about Peter Oborne’s voice.

Oborne is a British journalist, political commentator and author, as well as a regular presenter of the BBC’s Radio 4 political round up The Week in Westminster (aka Weekly Political Review). It was listening to this last December when I first heard his remarkable voice. Its deep bass is available to a surprising variety of modulation, as if it was tyring to surprise or pattern itself in the most interesting ways for the listener – I say ‘itself’ because the striking character of it is precisely the sense of being unwilled or unbidden. There appears to be – although I cannot quite believe it is true – no striving for its effects. Is this more than just another distinctive broadcasting voice – another Janet Street-Porter, or David Attenborough or (a voice that underwhelms my ears), Richard Dimbleby? It is not great in the sense of its range – this is not Sinatra or Welles – but I suspect because of its inventiveness. What that means I’m not sure.

 Here is a clip from one of his TV documentaries.

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2008 has been on a bit of a break since launching in October: this is mostly because I have been caught up in various things to do with moving from one job to another. In 2008 the site will be a lot more active and will involve more contributors and points of view. Of course this is the time of year when a lot of judgements and assessments of the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ are being made and I would welcome any contributions over the holiday period that engaged with the screen-end of those debates.

Jason Jacobs

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Half Life 2, Episode 2

Generally speaking when we look at an artwork it is as a discrete unit. For sure there are the vast webs of connections (say, with culture, tradition, other instances in the same oeuvre, genre and so and so on) that mean no artwork is a cultural island. But in practical everyday terms we tend to talk about this or that work which is more or less strictly bounded: here is my opinion on Volver, say, or Mahler’s Third Symphony; here is my thinking about this or that aspect of Psycho. Leaving aside for a moment whether even this approach is sensible, things get extremely complicated with artworks that are part of a series, that come, as it were, in parts. A lot of television is like that and I spend a lot of time puzzling over what difference it makes to say that I’m working on, for example, The Sopranos rather than Goodfellas. An immediate difficulty is the vastness of the difference in creative input – many writers, directors for one, only few for the latter; then there is the sheer difference in scale in terms of running time.

Stanley Cavell considered such matters a long while ago in an essay called, ‘The Fact of Television’ (one that has had little impact on the field of television studies) where he thinks through some of the differences between assessing television and film:

To say that masterpieces among movies reveal the medium of film is to say that this revelation is the business of individual works, and that these works have the status analogous to traditional works of art: they last beyond their immediate occasions; their rewards bear up under repeated viewings; they lend themselves to the same pitch of critical scrutiny as do any of the works we care about most seriously. This seems not to be true of individual works of television. What is memorable, treasurable, criticisable, is not primarily the individual work, but the program, the format, not this or that day of “I Love Lucy,” but the program as such. (Themes Out of School, 239)

Now I know a number of readers are immediately thinking about episodes and editions of television shows that they could draw on to refute Cavell. (I immediately think of Darin Morgan’s X-Files episode ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’, but as if there weren’t enough problems in terms of critical approach I’ve granted creative ownership to the writer rather than director, producer or the actors.) And there are ‘individual works’ that remain outstanding such as Stephen Poliakoff’s 1980 TV ‘play’ Caught on a Train. But, if the consequences of thinking of television as art is at least vaguely problematic in the way Cavell suggests, thinking about videogames in such terms adds a further puzzling dimension.

Earlier this month the games company Valve released the second episode of its Half-Life 2 series. That is, the second episode of a game that was already a sequel to the 1998 first person shooter Half-Life. The idea of calling the extension of a gameworld’s narrative scope an ‘episode’ is something quite new – most of the time such extensions are designated ‘expansions’ because what they do is expand the narrative and gameplay of already familiar gameworlds. Valve’s decision to badge their expansions as episodes (which began with the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 1 last year) is a signal that the narrative promise of their games – the plot, revelations about character, etc. –  is sufficiently attractive to warrant a designation that evokes the developing narratives of the serial form. It also allows each episode to incorporate technical improvements (such as enhancements to game design and graphics) that keep pace with the ever expanding  processing power of consoles and personal computers. It remains to be seen whether Valve’s approach will be adopted by others, but in the meantime this is one of the issues that I hope will stimulate further debate on this site.

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Criticism Proof?

Tarantino’s latest creation has been a box-office disappointment and I must admit, after not really being sure what to make of it myself, I did become addicted to wading through discussion forums to gauge other viewer’s responses. Originally made to be screened as part of a double feature collaboration by Tarantino and Rodriguez called Grindhouse (2007), Death Proof is Tarantino’s half of this homage to the seventies b-movie. In short it’s about a badass stuntman (Kurt Russell) who stalks attractive women to kill using his ‘death proof’ muscle car. Sound cheesy? That’s just the problem – it’s supposed to be, raising the question as to how a film like this is valued.  The arguments for and against Death Proof are various, though the discussion board forum itself becomes tiresome as too often what starts as an interesting avenue for debate very quickly degenerates into name calling which goes nowhere. I did manage however, (before fear of my head imploding) to gather some of the common viewer responses so far.  Perhaps the most common problem detractors find with the film is its dialogue centered story – all talk and no play makes the viewer bored especially after they’ve been primed for the pleasures of a mindless b-grade exploitation flick. For a long time we’re watching a bunch of girls talking inconsequential matters (reminiscent of the guys in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, only less funny for its lack of irony.) Supporters praise the dialogue for its realism, these girls are indeed ordinary people – not gangsters. Listening to the dialogue in these scenes, there is however, credence to be given to the argument that these women are not ordinary but QT’s fantasy girlfriends (think Alabama in True Romance), or on a more disturbing note, QT in disguise, leading to the claim that Death Proof is self-indulgent.Genre-wise the film seems a bit confused, another issue for viewers. For some Death Proof has an identity crisis, not sure whether it’s a slasher, a chick’s coming of age road movie or a revenge flick. But then who says a film has to conform to these structures?

Arguments for and against the film’s feminist stance also abound – are the women in the latter half of the film empowered? Are they insane and therefore as reprehensible as their antagonist or simply men themselves?
The bottom line from fans seems to be this – if you don’t like it, you don’t get it. To which, the standard response is – oh, we get it – we just don’t like it. Unfortunately that’s about as far as the argument goes. So is Death Proof so bad it’s good, or just simply bad? What makes this a good film? If it’s entertaining, if it’s true to the grindhouse tradition, if it makes it at the box office, or if it fails dismally and is revived on dvd by the niche market it was intended for?


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Gore, law and making judgments

One of my favourite pieces by Victor Perkins has to be his account of the book-tearing scene in Dead Poets Society. (As far as I know this has not been published but Victor has presented it to various audiences, for example at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies 2005 conference under the title, ‘Badness – An Issue in the Aesthetics of Film’) Without going into detail about Perkins’s objections to that scene (since I’m entertaining hopes that I might host a version of his paper on this site…), one of the crucial points he makes is that our judgments about a movie, or any artwork, are not enforceable like those made in a court of law. Our judgments are a contribution to a discussion or conversation about the mattering of movies to us. However, we cannot help but notice that there are judges who indeed do work in a court of law and whose judgments about film actually matters on a practical level (say if it involves enforcing the banning or censoring something on screen). High court judge Michael Burton’s recent ruling on Nobel laureate Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth means that it will now be sent out to British schools with a package of guidelines that teachers have to read out to pupils, presumably before the DVD screening.

There are a couple of bizarre things about this. First, one has to wonder why the British government is forcing teachers to screen what seems to me to be the cinematic equivalent of the old ‘The End is Nigh’ sandwich-boards. But even worse we have a situation where a judge is effectively controlling the context of the screening. Imagine a situation where one’s screening of Vertigo had to include warnings that the manipulation of a woman’s appearance to gratify one’s desires was not in line with the cultural consensus on femininity. The fact is that discovering and thinking through one’s own responses to a movie is part of the pleasure of watching it in the first place. The attraction of John Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets, is that he wants to shake up the official, stuffy and tradition forms of teaching enforced in the elite school where he works. As Perkins points out, the film has a problem articulating this effectively; Keating tells the students to destroy a piece of writing he doesn’t agree with, and the film encourages the audience to enjoy this act of vandalism.  But given a set of guidelines to read out from the British courts and a movie that seems to revel in the prospect of human destruction, Keating might have a point after all.

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Judgment and Screen

Serendipity: as it turns out the first day I start posting here the esteemed British journal, Screen publishes a debate about judgment and television. The issue is here but you’ll need some kind of subscription to access it: the relevant articles are by John Corner and Karen Lury, and they are fascinating.

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Some introductions: or, a bunch of people to thank for setting this site up

The idea for this site has been a long time coming ( 3 years) and was only retarded by my total lack of experience with web publishing. Here are some peeps to thank for making it happen when it did: Barry Saunders who actually made the web stuff work; Jason Wilson who had the insight to realise that I needed to make it work sooner rather than later; Ali Taylor who will be running this show and showing me how to run; and Tallimare, my web equivalent of Top Gear‘s The Stig, who will be racing with a bunch of stuff he doesn’t yet know about. So Oscar-thanks over, next post has some news.

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