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Boston Legal applauds privilege

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As a longterm fan of The Practice, I awaited the debut of its spin-off, Boston Legal. eagerly. I expected to see James Spader develop his predictably unpredictable character, trial lawyer Alan Shore, more fully. But, after watching several episodes of David Kelley‘s latest legal vehicle, I am disappointed. There has not been much more development of Shore, but that is only one of the problems with the show. The Practice succeeded largely on angst-ridden hunk Dylan McDermott‘s skills as an actor. His character, angst-ridden hunk Bobby Donnell, was one of the most complex in a television drama ever. But, the ensemble cast was not far behind him. Steve Harris (Eugene Young) or Camryn Manheim (Ellenor Frutt) could carry an episode as well as the founding member of the small criminal law firm. Interesting things occurred whether Bobby was on-screen or not. Fans were transfixed by the lawyers’ ability to make a way when all options seemed to be blocked by barriers. I believe Boston Legal is less than it could be because it lacks the strengths of its predecessor.

Lesley Smith, writing at Pop Matters, has zeroed in on much of what bothers me about Boston Legal.

Most egregiously, the show unrepentantly endorses and exploits traditional assumptions about lawyers: white privilege, boys are for business, girls are for sex, greed is good. The excesses go beyond the politically incorrect. Boston Legal is openly celebrates the privileges capitalism offers to a tiny minority, visible in their gleeful Olympian amorality in public, private, and professional life. By repackaging the morality of Enron, Halliburton, and widespread mutual fund mismanagement as frivolous eccentricity, the show valorizes the super-rich behaving super badly and getting away with it, over and over again.

Moreover, the tenor here is quite different from earlier “rich folk behaving badly” shows which made unlikely heroes out of J.R. Ewing and Alexis Carrington. Those characters directed their venom at each other, or fellow competitors for family and business wealth. In Boston Legal , the venom sprays downwards, at everyone who is not “like us.” Clients (blatantly less privileged, women, African Americans, and Latinos) are merely the means to money and fame, or better, notoriety.

One of the first thing one notices about Boston Legal is that it is a white show. The diversity that one came to take for granted with The Practice has disappeared. The faces are as pale as those at the Republican convention. Vanilla is so much the flavor of the week, month and year that dark-haired Lake Bell (Sally Heep) stands out in the crowd. One could say that is reflective of a silk-stocking law firm. But, even the most exclusive law firm in a large city such as Boston would likely have a minority lawyer or two. More tellingly, in regard to both race and class, the people who make a law-firm go — clerical staff, paralegals and investigators — don’t exist at Crane, Poole and Schmidt. Instead, the lawyers are shown doing their own research or interviewing clients themselves. A new associate might do that, but partners would not. Kelley has made a double faux pas by engaging in a failure of realism and missing an opportunity to avoid the cookie cutter sameness of the cast. In addition, he chose to ignore all of the talented non-white actors available when casting the show.

Smith observes that women don’t fare much better than the minorities and the insufficiently schooled in this legal drama as celebration of prosperity. The ‘sleep your way to success’ motif is played so often it appears to be the only one there is. Females may be present, but they are not really partners — except in bed. In addition, all three of the women given recurring screen time are attracted to Alan Shore, which is unlikely. One suspects it is a way for them to ‘earn’ some attention. The effect is to make their interchangeability all the more apparent.

The reviewer’s parting words on this unsettling television drama are insightful.

Those involved in the show describe it as “light” and “funny,” as if it were just a frothy entertainment. And several reviewers celebrate its “loopiness,” “fruitiness,” and “La-La Land” wackiness. Nothing, however, can hide the fact that, despite its idiosyncrasies, Boston Legal is all too accurate in its portrayal of our cultural moment, in which the gaps between richer and poorer grow ever larger and social and political empathy grows ever more anemic. It’s a cultural moment for which David E. Kelley seems to have discovered a particular affinity, both in the later seasons of Ally McBeal and here again in Boston Legal. Looking back, it appears that L.A. Law will eventually stand as his finest work. On that show, he showed sympathy for human fallibility and the frailty of aspiration. He also remembered that language could mean something more than the momentary reaction it produced, that “story” could accumulate into something other than a collection of vignettes, however witty or outrageous they may be.

In the coming four years, I expect to see concerns about social justice increasingly trivialized. The kind of people who say that either there are no hungry folks in America, or that they deserve their fate, will be heard more loudly than ever, while the voices of those who are concerned about the more than 11 million households without sufficient food are ignored. A proposal to burden the low-income and middle-class even more by repealing the federal income tax and imposing a regressive national sales tax may go forward with the blessings of the Bush administration. Embryonic stem cell research will continue to be shelved as the national leadership pays homage to the anti-abortion movement. Women’s wages will continue to shrink. Homosexuals, newly aware of where they stand with much of the population, will hesitate to assert themselves. I fear the suffering will be accompanied by a laugh track.

In an episode of Boston Legal, lawyer Lori Colson (Monica Potter), purchases a handbag that costs several hundred dollars from a sales clerk at a ritzy boutique. Her way of celebrating a legal victory is to go buy something frivolous and expensive. The sales woman recognizes the name on Lori’s credit card. She is the young rape victim whose case has been scrubbed due to the machinations of Crane, Schmidt and Poole. The lawyer looks unhappy when she leaves the boutique. But, that doesn’t change anything. The lawyer is ‘supposed to be’ a winner. The clerk is ‘supposed to be’ a loser. So, things are way the way they are ‘supposed to be.’ Smith is right. Boston Legal reflects the world we live in now, without questioning the assumptions built in.

Note: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.

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About The Diva

  • RARG


  • James

    I agree, please someone give us a link to the file, or at least give us the name of the song. It is a great song, please, please, please tell me.
    Besides, it looks as if I’m not the only one who wants to know.

  • Denny

    Hey Will could you tell me the name of the theme song please!!!!!!!!


  • Hayden

    [Personal contact info deleted]

  • Rodrigo

    please, whats the name of the main theme and who plays it?

  • will

    hey anyone wants the theme tune I have it so e mail me if you want it sent to you.

  • will

    I think Boston legal is easily one of the funniest things around and I love it. Spader,Bergen and Will Shatner are great. Just can’t wait for it to come out on dvd in the UK.

  • Ben

    There’s a little bluesy theme music from the last scene this week where Alan and Denny are in the flamingo costumes on the balcony. Anyone know this tune or is it just random music performed by the Danny Lux? Thanks.

  • Jay

    the band is called five iron frenzy

  • Boston Legal isn’t The Practice and it isn’t intended to be. It’s a different kind of show which happens to have a couple of characters and a city in common.

    Basically, Boston Legal is a show where they put Spader and Shatner on screen as much as possible and encourage them to act like lunatic hams for 45 minutes, and the result is usually amusing. Based on the last episode I’m not sure they even have anything we’d recognize as a traditional script. I think Spader and Shatner are just making the plot up themselves, such as it is.


  • Sandy Scott

    This is the best show on television currently. Spader and Shatner both won emmys and the writing is sharp. They have added stronger female characters. This is my favorite program to watch by a long shot.

  • superpower

    I too am trying to find out who’s the band and title of the song about Canada played during the helicopter scene in the last episode. I watched the credits closely at the end and Danny Lux is responsible for the music on the series. I can’t find a trail to him and the song used “Welcome to Canada. Any suggestions? By the way I am new to the show in this second season. Absolutely adore the humor of Denny Crane & Alan Shore

  • What was the band and title of the song about Canada played during the hellicopter scene in the last epposide?

  • Basil, the soundtrack is the best of Rick James, Leadbelly and George Clinton & the Funkadelics.

    Actually, I think the soundtrack is just a collection of negro spirituals. No, really.

  • Basil Yarbrough

    Does anyone know who does the soundtrack to Boston Legal?

  • Well, since Hispanics are the majority minority for you folks in the States, who make South African apartheid bureaucrats say “whatever”, can’t you at least take some solace that John Ashcroft’s job has been outsourced to a Mexican?

    (So do you have some sort of stereotypes teevee stock market, where you trade wops for spics, chinks for heebs, and so on, as long as they are stereotypes who look nothing like the fat-ass bastards who are watching?)

    And also, Lake Bell was horrid as a slutty, slightly stupid bartender in “Miss Match”, she isn’t any better as a slutty, slightly stupid lawyer in “Boston Legal”.

    And one last thing, “Denny Crane”.

  • I agree with you that the lawyers on Boston Legal are what we referred to as ‘pig-dogs’ in law school.

    But, there are people of color just as amoral as white folks. Condoleezza Rice is not alone. So, that is not a reason for having an all-white cast. Though I did not go into it in the entry, the support staff in Boston, or any large city, would be disproportionately minority. By not having a support staff, the show ignores reality.

    As for the over-sexualization of female characters, it is like a throwback to the ’80s. The time when law firms held wet tee-shirt contests is past, one hopes.

  • Maybe the real problem you have with Boston Legal isn’t race issues, but that it makes abundantly clear the creatures who practice law are fundamentally corrupt, evil and amoral. It is impossible to find evidence to the contrary.

    Just David E. Kelley’s self-loathing of his own fundamental corruption surfacing like pus, waiting to be lanced.