The classic combination of James Spader and William Shatner is just one of many reasons to savor the inaugural 17-episode season of Boston Legal. Making its highly rated ABC debut on October 3, 2004, this darkly comedic spinoff from The Practice looked like a formulaic reworking of creator David E. Kelley's previously successful series Ally McBeal, with similar plots and quirky characters enmeshed in personal and professional affairs of the heart at the prestigious Boston law firm of Crane, Poole & Schmidt. It quickly became apparent that Kelley, co-executive producer Bill D'Elia, and the show's magnificent ensemble cast were onto something equally fresh, funny, and infectiously entertaining.
Both Shatner and Spader won Emmys for their original roles on The Practice, and the priceless pairing of the erratic, egomaniacal senior partner Denny Crane (Shatner, doing the best work of his career) and ethically challenged attorney Alan Shore (Spader, likewise) signaled the arrival of one of the finest comedic duos in TV history. Waging a two-man war on political correctness, the boisterous has-been Denny loves the sound of his own name (the mere mention of "Denny Crane" qualifies as ego-stroking foreplay), unabashedly subjects female associates to his lascivious advances, and (in creator Kelley's words) "trades on the currency of his reputation" as an undefeated trial attorney. As the show's fascinating heart and soul, Alan Shore is a walking contradiction, and Spader plays him perfectly as a charismatic, self-loathing lothario who'll bend the law to suit his higher purposes. Deeply cynical yet fiercely committed to his own complex and compassionate moral code, he's brazenly open about his sexual appetites as he savors the affections of smart, sexy associates Sally Heep (Lake Bell), and Tara Wilson (Rhona Mitra), whose relationship with Shore grows strained as the season progresses.
While senior partner Paul Lewiston (Rene Auberjonois), senior associate and ex-Marine Brad Chase (Mark Valley), and junior associate Lori Colson (Monica Potter) struggle to maintain the firm's lofty reputation, the appearance of founding partner Shirley Schmidt (Candice Bergen) elevates Boston Legal to an even higher plane of serio-comic perfection. A former flame of Denny Crane's, Schmidt arrives in episode 11 (appropriately titled "Schmidt Happens") as common-sense negotiator with a rapier wit and a clanking pair of big brass cojones, fully capable of holding her own against the Crane/Shore juggernaut. And while "An Eye for an Eye" (episode 5) is a sublime example of Boston Legal's deft combination of lunacy and courtroom complexity, it's the deeper implications of episodes like "Tortured Souls" (15) and season finale "Death Be Not Proud" (tackling a dubious death sentence in Texas) that cast these rich and wonderful characters into sharper relief, baring their souls and the courage of their convictions.
With surprising departures (Lake Bell, in episode 13), new arrivals (Kerry Washington, as new associate Chelina Hall, in episode 15) and stellar guest stars including Larry Miller (as the eccentrically unstable founding partner Edwin Poole), Philip Baker Hall, Frances Fisher, Carl Reiner, Freddie Prinze Jr., Shelley Long, and late-season regular Betty White, Boston Legal gained a large and loyal following with exceptional writing, timely social relevance, and that rare quality of chemistry that guarantees long-term appeal. Nowhere is this more apparent than the now-famous Spader/Shatner "balcony scenes" that quickly became an episode-closing tradition, with staunch Republican Denny Crane and passionate Democrat Alan Shore reflecting upon their careers, current issues, and their own devoted friendship over brandy and cigars. With these two actors together, virtually every episode ends on a high note of pensive introspection, and Boston Legal becomes even greater than the sum of its parts. DVD extras are minimal (two featurettes with cast and producers, plus deleted scenes from episode 1) but enjoyably worthwhile. --Jeff Shannon
Review of Season Two
Impressive in quality and quantity, the 27 episodes of Boston Legal's second season (2005-06) are a dazzling showcase for one of TV's greatest ensembles. Everything that made season 1 so entertaining is refined here, often to the point of perfection: As the resident bad boys of the prestigious Boston legal firm of Crane, Poole & Schmidt, senior partner Denny Crane (William Shatner) and maverick attorney Alan Shore (James Spader) continue their campaign of rampant indiscretion, combining unabashed sexism and political incorrectness with Denny's egotistical fat-cat sense of entitlement (and a touch of "Mad Cow") and Alan's passion for justice and courtroom theatrics. The departure of his girlfriend Tara (season 1's Rhona Mitra) has left Alan pensively lonely, so his male-bonding with Denny becomes the series' emotional core, even as it reaches new heights of hilarity in episodes like "Finding Nimmo," an instant classic in which Denny introduces Alan to the pleasures of fly-fishing. Back at the office, semi-regular cast member Betty White turns from murder to robbery, only to find herself redeemed as the new "sandwich lady" at C, P & S. And while senior partner Paul Lewiston (Rene Auberjonois) juggles the firm's ethical dilemmas and a rocky reunion with his drug-addicted daughter (superbly played by Jayne Brook), founding partner Shirley Schmidt (Candice Bergen) dodges advances from her soon-to-be-remarried ex-husband (Tom Selleck) while suspecting Denny's soon-to-be-sixth-wife (Joanna Cassidy) of high-stakes gold-digging. In the midst of it all, Denise (Julie Bowen) faces threatening competition from a new attorney (Parker Posey) and elusive love with a dying billionaire (Michael J. Fox) while playing "friends with benefits" with colleague Brad (Mark Valley), who's only too willing to indulge their arrangement.
Expanded roles for Bowen and Valley are just two of this season's welcome improvements; along with Bergen and Auberjonois, they add engaging counterbalance to the Spader/Shatner juggernaut, while newcomers Justin Mentell and Ryan Michelle Bathe (as legal assistants) add youthful appeal in roles that necessarily remained marginal for most of the season. As always, series creator David E. Kelley (aided by a new writing staff) maintains a constant flow of outrageous behavior (most of it Denny's) and compelling courtroom trials based on hot-button issues including assisted suicide, the war in Iraq, private school discrimination, medical malpractice, tax evasion and a variety of other cases in which belligerent judges (played by Henry Gibson, Anthony Heald, Howard Hesseman, Shelley Berman, and others) play antagonistic foils to Alan Shore's impassioned defense. (It's here where Spader excels; Shore may be a lascivious lothario, but you offend his moral conscience at your peril.) A stellar array of guest stars, impeccable editing and cinematography, and glossy office production design make Boston Legal a constant feast for the eyes and ears, with breezy emphasis on the farcical goings-on at Crane, Poole & Schmidt. (The series' writing and production values are explored in brief but enjoyable bonus featurettes included on the final DVD in this seven-disc set.)
With Denny and Alan's season-ending visit to Los Angeles (where they defend a sexy celebrity played by Star Trek: Voyager's Jeri Ryan), it's delightfully obvious that Shatner and Spader are the heart and soul of Boston Legal, which is ultimately about the mutual affection of two men whose viewpoints are often as polarized as their friendship is compassionately co-dependent. Bolstered by clever allusions to Shatner's Star Trek legacy and throwaway references to their own status as characters in a TV show (as Kelley and his writers deliberately demolish the "fourth wall" of TV for comedic effect), Spader and Shatner quickly turned their episode-closing balcony scenes into an honorable tradition, where differences dissolve in the taste of fine scotch and slowly-savored cigars. They're bringing us the finest "dramedy" that primetime network television has to offer, and we'll gladly follow them as their crazy lives continue. --Jeff Shannon
Review of Season Three
In year 3, Boston Legal continues to toggle with ease between comedy and pathos. The season begins on a bittersweet note as Denise (Julie Bowen) gets engaged to the terminally ill Daniel (Michael J. Fox), who disappears to try an experimental treatment. Enter two new litigators, smart-talking associate Claire Sims (Constance Zimmer) and cocky partner Jeffrey Coho (Craig Bierko). Once Daniel exits the picture, Jeffrey and Brad (Mark Valley) compete for Denise's affections. The firm soon welcomes a third new face: legal secretary Clarence (Gary Anthony Williams)--also known as Clarice, Clavant, and Oprah.
As before, cases vary from minor to major. Story arcs include the murder of a judge's wife (with Ashton Holmes as the suspect and Katey Sagal as his mother) and an outrageous peeping tom (David Dean Bottrell) with a jones for Shirley (Candice Bergen). Denny Crane (William Shatner), meanwhile, finds love with diminutive attorney Bethany (Meredith Eaton-Gilden)--and her mother, Bella (Delta Burke). And Alan (James Spader, who scored a second Emmy to add to the one he received for The Practice) helps former co-worker Jerry "Hands" Espenson (Christian Clemenson) out of a few jams. By the end of the season, Jeffrey is gone, while Jerry returns to Crane, Poole & Schmidt.
Throughout the year, the firm tackles a variety of timely issues, ranging from religious freedom to immigration law. Reporter Gracie Jane (Jill Brennan), a Nancy Grace doppelgänger, also comes in for some ribbing. Aside from recurring characters, like Jane Lynch (as a sexual surrogate), the third season counts a few actors behind the camera, such as Eric Stoltz ("Dumping Bella") and Adam Arkin ("Nuts"), from David E. Kelley's Chicago Hope. The featurette Character Witness looks at the year's most colorful characters--turns out Spader and Clemenson are old friends--and Out of Order looks at the judges, notably Gail O'Grady, Howard Hesseman, and Shelley Berman. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
Review of Season Four
As in Munchkinland, people seem to come and go so quickly at the law firm of Crane, Poole & Schmidt. Out the door as Season Four begins are cast members Mark Valley, Julie Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, and Constance Zimmer (a tough loss). But the more things change the more they stay the same. Introduced to sweet, pretty and capable new lawyer Katie Lloyd (Tara Summers), it takes Alan Shore (James Spader) all of one second to come on to her. It takes Denny Crane (William Shatner) five. The most stellar addition to the firm is Night Court Emmy-winner John Larroquette as Carl Sack from the New York office. He has come not to shake things up so much as to tone them down, and "wring out some of the madness." "We are in the business of law," he pronounces. "A law firm has to be discreet, conservative." Good luck with that, Carl, especially when one of the lawyers keeps popping up on YouTube dressed as his female alter-ego, and the senior partner is one minute arrested for soliciting a prostitute, and the next caught in his own Larry Craig bathroom incident, and the next courting a discrimination suit after firing a female associate for being overweight. That, of course, would be addled loose cannon Denny Crane, who seems to be more of a distraction this season, but who rises to the occasion in an excellent episode in which he and Alan find themselves on opposite sides in the case of a Massachusetts town that wants to secede from the United States. "Every time someone counts me out of the game, I surprise them," he tells Carl. Boston Legal is nothing if not surprising, as witness the story arc involving a woman (former Saturday Night Live ensemble member Mary Gross) with Aspergers whose budding romance with Jerry Espenson (Christian Clemenson) is threatened by her romantic love for inanimate objects (the condition exists; look it up). Another new addition to the firm, Lorraine (Saffron Burrows), herself an object of Alan's obsession, reveals explosive secrets from her past. But more compelling is the dramatic case of a woman (guest star Mare Winningham) who efficiently plots the murder of her daughter's killer, but wants Alan to plead temporary insanity. Spader, a three-time Emmy-winner as Alan, is at his best when he is on his (and series creator David Kelley's) "soapbox" ("Don't you get tired going on and on like that?" Denny affectionately chides him). His verbal smackdown of the United States Supreme Court justices in the episode, "The Court Supreme," is one of the season's most memorable moments. Carl Sack may not succeed in making Crane, Pool & Schmidt "a normal law firm," but as one is heard to remark, "It's not everyday you encounter compelling characters, is it?" --Donald Liebenson
Please rise for the end of pure legal chaos at the law firm of Crane Poole & Schmidt, as Boston Legal - Season 5 (2008) rests its case with the final season on DVD. This final installment of the show that put a facetiously refreshing spin on the legal drama genre tackles controversial judicial and personal issues without objection in these 13 episodes, including the 2008 presidential election, Mad Cow disease, gay marriage rights, and health regulations for an unapproved Alzheimer's drug. Headlining the outstanding ensemble cast are James Spader and William Shatner, starring in their respective Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning roles as Alan Shore and Denny Crane, two unlikely kindred spirits among the brigade of high-priced litigators at Crane Poole & Schmidt. Matching forces in her Emmy-nominated role is Candice Bergen playing the vigilant founding partner Shirley Schmidt, along with four-time Emmy winner and former TV lawyer John Larroquette as Carl Sack. This final round of drinks and cigars includes appearances from previous seasons' guest stars, including Rene Auberjonois and Betty White, as well as new clients including William Daniels, Roma Maffia, Jane Lynch, Brenda Strong, and Ming-Na.