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Wednesday, November 17, 2004  

Entertainment: Boston Legal celebrates privilege

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.

2:00 PM