Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A diversion from class struggle: Boston Legal

Time out from politics for a moment. It's too hot in Ottawa, and I mean that literally.

I once switched on the box several years ago and caught an episode of The Singing Detective. As I watched the dense and
richly-textured plot unfold, I thought to myself, This is what television could be. The medium really does have enormous potential. Slings and Arrows is another rare illustration of this, made right here in Canada, too. Despite the critics' snotty commentaries, Paul Gross did the best Hamlet I've ever seen a few years ago at Stratford, and his considerable talents are uniquely suited to this backstage comedy.

For all sorts of reasons, though (mainly the exigencies of capitalism), TV is a living example of the race to the bottom, a desert of game shows, talk shows, assorted "judge" shows, "reality TV" shows, and random snippets and gobbets of this and that, intended for an audience weaned on Sesame Street who have, consequently, the attention-span of a gnat. That doesn't mean, though, that I don't watch a lot of it myself, and while drinking beer, not latte. My partner likes reno-porn, as a friend of ours calls the house-and-garden shows, and I've built up a healthy respect for Mike Holmes.

But in our case there must be some sort of cosmic re-balancing going on, because our favorite programs have been the Law and Order
and CSI series. Fresh from the battlefields of protest and opposition, we cheer on the cops and the district attorneys, those "two separate but equally important groups" who, respectively, investigate crime and (presumption of innocence be damned) "prosecute the offenders." Aggressive defence lawyers, defending indefensible clients on hallucinatory grounds, drive us nuts, not to mention the bleeding-heart judges who waggle their fingers at Jack McCoy for some infinitesimal technical transgression and let sadistic murderers back on the street. We wait for the guilty verdicts with pleasurable anticipation, drinking in the stunned looks of the offenders as they're carted off to Rikers. They'll do hard time. Serves them right.

And, as a long-time critic of positivism, I am all awe and admiration for the hi-tech science and the meticulous evidence-based methodology of the criminalists in Las Vegas, Miami and New York. It's entered the domestic lexicon: "Did you take that last piece of pizza?" "What, did I leave some epithelials?"

But these urban morality plays, which effortlessly seduce us into a point of view that can be found more consistently over at places like Dust My Broom and Small Dead Animals, do not entirely rule the roost. Programs featuring defence attorneys are not as common--it's the Zeitgeist, stupid--but a few of them have shown staying power, like LA Law and The Practice. The spin-off from the latter, however, Boston Legal, transcends the pack of 'em, as well as the cop-and-prosecutor efforts that, in our saner moments, we realize
consist of nothing more than hegemonic state propaganda.

A few years ago in New York City, we bought scalper's tickets and went to the theatre to see The Tempest. Who strode magnificently onto the stage as Prospero? Why, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. Patrick Stewart was first-rate, another Shakesperian, like Paul Gross and indeed William Shatner, who made the real money somewhere else. But I cannot imagine Captain James Kirk doing a proper job of Shakespeare. Shatner was a ham, his acting in the early Star Trek series abominable. He was wooden, self-conscious and frankly silly most of the time.

So what happened? Somehow the man has finally found his
métier. Shatner is just playing himself, laughing at himself and making it work, because his character is, well, wooden, self-conscious and frankly silly. Denny Crane has amazing presence as an early-onset Alzheimer's victim, an unabashed Republican and gun nut, who still wins cases, merely by pompously stating his name. "Denny Crane." I love it when he does that.

But one actor alone is not responsible for making this series sing. James Spader and Candace Bergen are indispensible. The three of them play off each other like a trio version of the Beatles. And Boston Legal is simply brilliantly scripted. Watching it is like entering a parallel universe where everyone is just The characters talk English, but one is tempted to search the place for pods. The only person who seems to be from planet Earth is Paul Lewiston (
Rene Auberjonois), whom Trekkies will remember as Odo, the bucket man.

The storyline is complex, a mixture of discourses, largely parodic, swirling around themes of human passion and morality in both personal and legal settings. Watching Denny and Alan Shore (James Spader) have their manly Scotch and cigars in the evening, exchanging odd comments in perfect communion, two good friends, is worth the price of admission.

I don't know how the team, actors and writers, maintains such consistency. I haven't heard a false note yet. This is one of those series one watches in fear as well as admiration, wondering when it will come to an end--when that ecstatic jamming will falter, and the regular accordionist lurches once again onto the stage.

On to the next season. I can't wait.

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