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 associates Denise Bauer (Julie Bowen) 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