Boston Legal: Season One

Boston Legal: Season One (2004)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: James Spader, William Shatner, Candice Bergen, Monica Potter
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Featurettes

Talented producer, writer and creator David E. Kelley ("Chicago Hope, " "Picket Fences," Ally McBeal") presents a spin-off from his former hit television show, "The Practice." Revolving around the happenings at the law firm of Crane, Poole and Schmidt, "Boston Legal: Season One" bustles with quirky characters and compelling cases. A mixture of dark comedy, suspense and courtroom drama, "Boston Legal" is a truly unique viewing experience that, from the get-go, establishes a quick rhythm which sets it apart from past and present legal shows.

For the uninitiated, the Boston law firm is comprised of: Denny Crane (William Shatner), the iconic senior associate who is slowly going senile; Alan Shore (James Spader), the morally bankrupt lawyer whose unethical means infuriate his coworkers; Brad Chase (Mark Valley), the Ken-doll-type, motor mouthed lawyer who is brought in to keep an eye on Denny; Lori Colson (Monica Potter), the lawyer who plays by the book but finds herself in many moral quandaries; Shirley Schmidt (Candice Bergen), another senior partner who is hard-nosed and difficult; Tara Wilson (Rhona Mitra), the attractive junior associate who has a rocky relationship with Alan, and Paul Lewiston (Rene Auberjonois), the headstrong, grounded associate who consistently attempts to reel in his wayward subordinates. Rounding out the cast are Lake Bell (who portrays up and coming lawyer Sally Heep, who happens to be an ex-girlfriend of Alan and Brad's), an hilariously vulgar Betty White as Alan's secretary and Larry Miller as Edwin Poole, the senior associate who has a comically revealing nervous breakdown.

While all of these actors and characters are suitably engaging and effective, the real standouts happen to be Spader, Shatner and Bergen. As Alan Shore, Spader creates an aloof smartass who continually dazzles through his surprising actions and witty wordplay. Quick on his feet, Alan tosses out double entendres without a modicum of restraint. This unpredictability is riveting, with Spader portraying a walking contradiction, someone who can rattle off a sexist comment one minute and then lay bare his scarred soul the next. While cocky and unethical, Alan also has a conscience and it's this dichotomy that is so appealing. Similarly, William Shatner is a revelation as Denny Crane. Continually repeating his name as though it were a mantra (attempting to instill awe and fear in those around him), Crane is a sleazy, egotistical skirt-chaser whose best days are long gone. Unable to cope with his deteriorating brain, Shatner infuses his character with a sadness that seeps through his tired eyes, creating a performance that is alternately brazen and poignant. His often-imitated acting style, with all the stilted, awkward pauses, is mostly kept in check and, when Shatner does fall back into his old ways, it perfectly fits Crane's disposition. Midway through the season, Candice Bergen appears as Shirley Schmidt and, much like Spader and Shatner, she is a force to be reckoned with. Channeling a cutthroat "Murphy Brown," Bergen duels and spars with anybody who gets in her way, steamrolling over them maliciously. She completes the power trifecta, laying waste to the supporting characters.

Alan and Denny share most of the limelight (with Alan's personal relationships threading through most episodes and Denny's unstable mental health comprising others) and their mere presence is so larger-than-life that every other character pales in comparison. While the rest of the ensemble is talented, their characters suffer from acute blandness, even though every now and again interesting flaws shine through (like Lori's mistake in "Loose Lips" and Brad's persistent bad luck with women). While "Boston Legal" is always good, the show slightly deflates whenever Spader, Shatner and Bergen aren't onscreen. The supporting characters, while multi-faceted, are almost too grounded in reality to be interesting, especially when compared to the leads. But, this is a minor quibble, since the writing on the show is so strong that it transcends what few weaknesses there are.

When firing on all cylinders, "Boston Legal" is funny, suspenseful and thought-provoking. Although it accomplishes this feat quite often, a couple of episodes stand out from the rest. "Hired Guns" focuses on a murder case that Lori and Brad are defending; one that compellingly points to the woman they are representing (with some psychological doubts coming into play) and a tense stand-off between Alan and a gun-toting Dad whose children have been taken away from him. What sets this apart from the others is the deft juxtaposition between drama and comedy, as well as the way we become immersed in the trial in such a limited amount of time. The episode also features some of the best editing I've seen on episodic television, with both storylines slowly building until they converge, switching back and forth during the most intense moments, creating suspense that literally explodes during the crescendo. The last show of the season, "Death Be Not Proud," is also stunningly realized. A death-row inmate about to be executed in Texas has Alan venturing beyond the confines of Boston. Will the mentally challenged murderer (who is likely innocent) find reprieve? A humanistic side to Alan is exposed here and a season highlight is achieved when Alan gives a passionate speech before an indifferent panel of judges. Tempering this is a comedic parallel storyline that has Shirley and Denny representing guest star Shelley Long, who portrays a socialite nymphomaniac. Denny once again exploits the weaknesses of the presiding judge to hilarious effect. On top of this, the series points to interesting developments in regards to Denny's tenure at the law firm. Once again, this episode juggles pathos, suspense and humor with a sure hand.

Stylistically, "Boston Legal" employs hand-held cameras, with a majority of shots being in medium and close-up range. This brings us into the scenes, as though we were in the room with the characters and grounds the over-the-top shenanigans with a certain dose of reality. Likewise, many of these choices create a claustrophobic feeling, which helps ratchet up the tension during the courtroom sequences. As noted before, the editing is superlative, matching up to the soundtrack music and giving transitions a nice, seamless flow. It's evident that much care is given to the creation of the show and these little touches pay dividends to the enjoyment factor.

Spread over five discs, all seventeen episodes are included here, with the bonus features included on disc five. Disc One includes: "Head Cases," "Still Crazy After All These Years," "Catch And Release," "Change of Course." Disc Two: "An Eye For An Eye," "Truth Be Told," "Questionable Characters," "Loose Lips." Disc Three: "A Greater Good," "Hired Guns," "Schmidt Happens," "From Whence We Came." Disc Four: "It Girls And Beyond," "'Til We Meat Again," "Tortured Souls," "Let Sales Ring." Disc Five: "Death Be Not Proud."

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment presents "Boston Legal: Season One" in a widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The black levels are rich and deep and the transfer is close to perfect. Every now and again there are small hints of grain, but this is miniscule and doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the show. Colors appear vibrant, especially the warm, brownish hues that run rampant throughout the set design (I find it interesting that the coldness of the profession is tempered with these warm colors). Also, there are no signs of edge enhancement or halos around the images, while the details are clear and sharp. Overall, a nice presentation.

Unfortunately, we only get a Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack. As such, there are minimal atmospheric sounds that could have immersed us more accurately into the office scenarios and tense courtroom scenes. While serviceable, it would have been nice to have a 5.1 soundtrack. The presentation is decent, with sound levels never becoming too low or loud. Dialogue appears natural, with no evidence of hiss or distortion. The included subtitle options are English, Spanish and French.

In terms of Special Features, we first have the featurette "Court Is Now In Session: How Boston Legal Came To Be" whose title is a little misleading. Instead of focusing on the origin of the show, it details (via interviews with David E. Kelley, executive producer Bill D'Elia and the primary cast members) how certain actors were chosen for their roles. Also talked about are the acting styles of the leads and the big personalities that occupy the set. Raves over the writing is also brought up, with the actors commending the scripts and the way relevant political and social issues are weaved into the storylines. This extra runs a little over 11 minutes long.

Another featurette, entitled "An Unlikely Pair: Alan Shore and Denny Crane" covers David E. Kelley's thoughts about the different acting styles between Spader (who is methodical) and Shatner (who is instinctive). Executive producer Bill D'Elia compares the two to classic comedy teams like Abbott and Costello. The most interesting revelation is the origin behind the ending balcony scenes that cap each show off. Apparently, this wasn't by design, but evolved when the chemistry between Spader and Shatner was overwhelmingly evident. This featurette comes in at a little over 5 minutes.

Finally, there are "Deleted Scenes From Pilot Episode 'Head Cases'" which features David E. Kelley and Bill D'Elia talking about the different drafts that were written prior to the pilot being filmed and aired. Eventually, it was decided to make the show funnier, much like a "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," set in a courtroom. This introduction sets up a series of deleted scenes, some funny (Brad and Denny doing push-ups together) and some dramatic (a powerful performance from comedian Larry Miller, which provides insight into his character's devolving mental condition). All in all, these scenes add to the rich history of the characters. The total time for these is just over 15 minutes.

David E. Kelley has once again created a unique show that solidifies his track record of excellence. Strong writing, compelling court cases that tackle provocative issues and powerhouse performances from the leads help propel "Boston Legal" into the upper echelon of courtroom dramas. For fans of comedy, suspense and general quirkiness, "Boston Legal: Season One," comes highly recommended.