Mr. Coogan's So-Called Television Column

OK”¦forget “Lost;” forget “Desperate Housewives;” and definitely forget any of the new cheesy comedies ABC decided to bring to the airwaves this season. “Boston Legal” was the show I was most looking forward to seeing this new fall season on ABC.

At the end of last season when “The Practice” started following Alan Shore (James Spader) and his new job at a prestigious civil law firm, I was very intrigued. William Shatner showed up and played Denny Crane, the mildly mentally diseased senior partner of the mammoth, money making machine firm. The best part about him was that he didn’t seem to have a significant grip on reality until he was in a court room and in front of a jury and a judge. Shatner added some extra spice that already featured Spade’s skilled portrayal of Shore, an egomaniac lawyer that could be best described as what Robin Hood might look like if he worked at a Boston law firm in 2004.

When these two saucy characters were combined with the eminent return of Tara (Rhona Mitra), the paralegal fresh out of law school trying to establish herself and Sally (Lake Bell), the young associate who often flip-flopped between being remarkably sure of herself and being about as stable as a bowl of Jell-O, I was hooked.

Also, the storylines tackled at the end of “The Practice” at the civil law firm mirrored the often serious, dramatic and, subsequently, deeply interesting storylines that “The Practice” often dived into. When these were combined with the wry, witty, well-delivered dialogue from Spader and Shatner, I thought there was a pretty good chance I could be forced to think (a little anyway) and be entertained with characters I could grow to love or love to hate.

Unfortunately, after the airing of the series premiere of “Boston Legal,” I think my hopes could be dashed significantly.

Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe the show is still in the process of trying to figure out what it wants to be. Maybe the writers and producers already decided it was going to be more “comedy” than “drama.” Either way, “Boston Legal” more closely resembles another one of Creator David E. Kelley’s other legal “dramas,” “Ally McBeal” than it does “The Practice.” And considering how silly “Ally McBeal” got towards the end of its run, that’s a shame.

“Boston Legal’s” similarities to “Ally McBeal” really aren’t significant or glaring in any one way. I don’t look at any one character or situation and become instantly reminded of someone from the Fox drama. However, the overall tone of the show strikes me as significantly lighter and fluffier than the previous legal drama that held “Boston Legal’s” timeslot. This is the case because of the stories being told and the characters immersed in them.

Looking at the storylines, the premiere episode focused on three storylines significantly. First, Alan Shore bet Brad Chase (Mark Valley — “Eddie” from “Keen Eddie”) that he could secure a favorable ruling in a discrimination case where a mother attempted to sue a production company because her daughter was turned down for the title role of “Annie.” The little girl was African-American. I doubt “The Practice” would have ever had a storyline like this, but if they did, I’m sure some sort of darker, more interesting twist would have been added. This case featured the little girl singing several verses of “Tomorrow” in court and a passionate courtroom cameo by Rev. Al Sharpton that was part relevant, part completely unnecessary and over the top. That felt more of an “Ally McBeal” moment than one from “The Practice.” The case was eventually settled, but the entire storyline, which could have handled been handled with grace and dignity, ended up silly and feathery.

Another major story from the premiere episode included a major client from the firm approaching Denny Crane and asking him to hire a private investigator to track a potentially cheating wife. The problem is Denny is the one she’s cheating with. With the help of another partner, Lori Colson (Monica Potter — “Along Came a Spider” and “Con Air”), and Tara’s feminine charms, they try to stop the man from hiring the P.I. and forgetting the whole thing. The client discovers Denny’s little secret, pulls out a gun to kill Denny only to realize the gun was shooting blanks. While it was fun to see Shatner act his way out of a potentially hairy situation, the story was inane and frivolous.

Finally, the last story followed Brad and Sally try a case of a recently divorced mother of two kids attempting to take her kids to New York City so she could start a medical residency at Columbia Presbyterian. However, the father, who was one step away being a deadbeat dad, tried to block the woman from taking the two kids. The woman was upset because her ex-husband was a jerk and he didn’t want to be bothered too much to see the kids at his convenience. After Sally and Alan saw the deadbeat dad in a bar hitting on a woman, Alan was able to secure some tawdry pictures of him with that woman, who happened to be a hooker he knew, while also snorting cocaine off her body. The blackmail worked. Alan Shore saved the day and the mother and her kids moved to New York.

This particular storyline was the closest to an actual serious, heart-wrenching situation in the entire episode and it was solved very quickly with Alan just resorting to what appeared to be his “normal tactics.” Unlike in “The Practice.” what Alan did appeared to be much more normal and even mundane and took a lot of the fun out of the story unfolding in that way. If he’s going to continue to use dirty tactics and be a jerk, the least the writers and producers could do is make it fun and interesting to watch him be a complete jerk.

That leads to the next part of “Boston Legal” that is lacking, the characters. The beauty of Alan Shore and Denny Crane in “The Practice” was that these two guys were eccentric personalities. They rose above the serious, legal mumbo jumbo and were fun, crazy, intriguing characters. They were obviously “different” than all the other “sane” characters on the show and that made them worth watching.

However, the problem with “Boston Legal” was echoed very clear during a scene at a bar in the show’s premiere episode. While Alan and Denny drank and conversed, Alan told Denny that he’s used to being the one that’s “nuts” in a particular workplace. However, at the new firm, now he’s leaning towards the “sane side.” He doesn’t like that and I don’t like it either.

The atmosphere of the new firm seems a bit more wacky than the serious, muffled tone on “The Practice.” The people on that show were straight shooters for the most part. The “Boston Legal” premiere featured a young lawyer (Sally) getting wildly upset when Brad came back to town after running the Washington D.C. office and is reduced to emotional rubble when she realizes they don’t have a future together like she had hoped. Then, Lori explained to Tara how she’s “nasty hot” and should hit on a client. And last but not least, one of the partners has a mental break down and forgets to put on pants”¦and underpants”¦ for a large internal staff meeting. Unbelievable”¦

What happens when more wacky people and situations are introduced is that it reduces the effectiveness Alan Shore and Denny Crane have as characters. While it makes sense not to mirror exactly what “The Practice” was like, it also doesn’t make much sense to turn the entire legal drama concept on its ear and incorporate situations that reduce the effectiveness of the show’s two most intriguing characters. “The Practice” was crazy enough with just Alan and Denny being “nuts.” It really doesn’t need anyone else who’s slightly mentally ill.

While I was disappointed overall with the series premiere of “Boston Legal,” I’ll certainly continue to watch to see what happens. Either the show will return to its more “serious” roots and become a more appealing series or continue to teeter towards reaching “Ally McBeal” proportions. Whether it’s the show ironing out the kinks or completely burning in flames, it will be a good story either way and I want to be along for the ride”¦

After all, could you imagine if ABC canceled a David E. Kelley penned series with an actor playing a role he just won an Emmy or in less than a season? It doesn’t seem possible. However, I’d be more interested in that than 22 episodes of “Boston Legal” as it stands now.

Alan Shore”¦I pray for your return to the spotlight”¦

— Coogan