I’ve rarely been a fan of overused, clichéd genre television such as legal thrillers, cop shows, medical mysteries, and the like. With rare exception, the shows are kind of like the monster Star Trek turned into: it’s neat to read about the quirky new characters the show has, but once you see it you realize how quickly everyone fits into the typical mold and the show just becomes a regurgitation of everything that came before it. While Boston Legal does fall into that trap a bit, mostly the show is unique law drama filled with one-of-a-kind characters that most writers wouldn’t dare to conceive. It’s also a great example of why it’s good to be unique.
The quirky trap that Boston Legal falls into is due to its heritage. The show is the latest creation of David E. Kelly, who brought you Ally McBeal and The Practice, the latter of which Boston Legal is a spin-off from. Like those other shows the law firm which houses the weekly insanity is full of strange characters of various shapes and sizes, from the oversexed ego-maniacal Denny Crane (William Shatner) to the oversexed liberal rebellious Alan Shore (James Spader). Come to think of it, just about everyone on the series is oversexed, leading to one of season three’s funny continuing storylines – but I get ahead of myself.
If you’ve never seen an episode of Boston Legal you won’t feel too left out, as season three opens with an episode that pretty much returns everything to status quo at the show’s law office, Crane, Poole, and Schmidt. Open relationships and storylines from the previous season are rapidly shut down in an almost disappointing fashion, and most of the romantic relationships and personal storylines are back to neutral, if not by the end of the first episode then shortly thereafter. That reset might be slightly disappointing for longtime viewers, but it does allow the show to do what it does best: explore its characters and their own philosophies, dreams, and ideas through the cases they take on; cases that include an anorexic girl attempting to emancipate herself, a woman who wants to sue God for her husband’s early demise, and an animal rights group suing over cosmetic testing.
The show follows its own formula by interjecting new life into the series in the form of new attorneys at the law office. Craig Bierko, who most people only know as the humungous competition in Cinderella Man, is a phenomenal addition as Jeffrey Coho, a partner who immediately manages to clash both with Alan Shore and Shore’s long-time adversary Brad Chase (Mark Valley). Bierko became a great addition to the cast as a new thorn in Brad’s paw. Sadly, Bierko left as suddenly as he arrived, saying goodbye in episode fifteen because the character “isn’t happy." Truthfully, the character leaves because it turns out both he and Brad are having casual sex with the same woman, associate Denise Bauer (Julie Bowen), who winds up pregnant from one of them (remember when I said everyone was oversexed?). Even more truthfully, Bierko was pursuing a sitcom on Fox – hopefully that means he’ll return to Boston Legal soon.
Along with Jeffrey arrives Claire Simms (Constance Zimmer), a crotchety addition to the cast who pretty much hates everything in Boston, especially the quirky characters she’s surrounded by. Things actually become tougher for Claire when she meets an even quirkier character: Clarence (Gary Anthony Williams), a soft spoken man who feels more comfortable in the persona of Clarice, along with the big dress and wig that comes with it. While Zimmer is a decent addition, the true firepower here is in Williams’s hands, who moves deftly between Clarence, Clarice, and a third persona Clevant. Each creation is amazingly different and it’s hard to believe Clarence isn’t actually suffering from multiple personalities as Williams creates the characters. The difference between Williams’ skill and Zimmer’s is made evident with the announcement that he will be a main cast member for the upcoming fourth season, while she will not.
Not everything about the series is about the newbies, however. Fan favorite, former Crane, Poole, and Schmidt lawyer Jerry “Hands” Espenson (Christian Clemenson). Jerry shows up so frequently, it’s hard to remember he’s not actually part of the law firm or the show, as he comes to his friend Alan Shore to help defend him for several sequential episodes from a variety of legal battles, including firing a Scientologist at his own law firm. The storyline gives Jerry the chance to come back to Crane, Poole, and Schmidt while at the same time challenging the close friendship between Alan and Denny Crane. Denny begins to see Jerry as a rival for Alan’s friendship. Instead of taking that concept and making something truly silly, like King of Queens might, it becomes an interesting inspection of male friendship.
Actually, just about every part of Shatner’s stories evolves into an interesting inspection of life. As the season opens, Denny is starting to become a bit of a fool, and there is talk at the firm of removing him from the partnership because of his damaging reputation. Fellow senior partner Shirley Schmidt (Candice Bergen) draws close to pulling that plug at times, but Denny truly represents something marvelous. Through the character Shatner gets to parody his own past (Denny’s cell phone frequently opens to a Star Trek communicator sound), while at the same time explore what it’s like to be a legendary figure who is getting older, growing less-able, and having people begin to doubt you. Shatner takes the role right to the edge of silly, and then suddenly draws back for a poignant statement about age, skill, and fame. It shouldn’t come as a surprise – it’s what William Shatner has been doing with his career for the past few years, but in Denny Crane it really becomes something amazing.
No legal drama is without its share of satirical storylines or poignant social commentary, and Boston Legal certainly isn’t any different. Some of the more topical storylines involve New Orleans in the days following Katrina, a teacher on trial for a student with a severe allergy who died from eating a peanut in her classroom, and Denny finding himself on Homeland Security’s “no fly” list. Each of the stories gets in some thought provoking social commentary, although that may be because frequently I find myself already on the side the protagonist lawyers are defending. Less liberal tastes might not find the statement that the government should find more Steves and less-bureaucrats as satisfying.
In its third season, Boston Legal does a good job of keeping itself accessible to new viewers while still hanging on to the fans who have been on board for two seasons. It’s a challenging task, but the show does it nicely, even through its five or six episode story arc of a murder case early in the season. This is the kind of show that is great to put on in the background and just enjoy without having to invest yourself fully – if you miss a few episodes you won’t be left out - although some of its comments about life and the world we live in just might grab your attention for a few minutes, making it a show that’s also worthy of checking out on a regular basis.
Boston Legal is definitely one of those shows that lends itself to DVD. Put in a disc and let the episodes roll away the hours. Except the DVD isn’t set up for that purpose, gaining my frustration at a poor design from what should otherwise be a good DVD release at the very least.
Missing from any of the set’s seven discs is that absolutely necessary “Play All” button. That means you can’t just put the disc in, click “Play All” and lose yourself in the series. Instead, you have to select the episode you want to watch, go through a submenu that allows you control over the episode options (which really only consist of languages and chapters) and then you can play the episode. That’s too many steps for a show I’d rather just lazily watch. Come on Fox, you can do better than this.
I wouldn’t mind having to go to a submenu if there were at least some sort of commentary options. A commentary on a show like this would be fantastic. You have a phenomenal cast, witty writers, plenty of people who could offer insight into this show. Instead the set is without anything of the sort. That’s not too uncommon for television shows, which have to make the most of the space they have, but that’s the only excuse for a submenu system like this set has.
Instead there are only two bonus featurettes included in the Boston Legal Season three set. “Out of Order” focuses on the actors who play the judges, an easy to overlook, but still incredibly important faction of the series. Considering the talent that brings these roles to life, from Armin Shimmerman (another Star Trek name), to Howard Hessmen, to Anthony Heald (a holdover from Kelly’s other Boston show, Boston Public). The featurette is short, but does give the judges the proper respect and attention.
The second featurette is “Character Witness,” which looks at the guest stars from the season. Specifically the featurette looks at three notable guests: Christian Clemenson’s luck with character Jerry Espenson which scored him an Emmy, Denny Crane’s midget partner, Bethany, played by Meredith Eaton; and David Dean Bottrell’s creepy, self-proclaimed “pee-pee” voyer, Lincoln Meyer. Again, it’s a nice featurette that draws focus to something easy to take for granted, although these guest stars are a lot more visible with a lot more attention drawn to them than the judges.
I’d love to compliment this DVD set for its excellent content, but the navigation system is a mess for something that should be so simple. Instead I’ll tell you the episodes are great, but plan on taking a break after every episode in order to navigate to the next one.