William Shatner and James Spader in Boston Legal by Richard Cartwright/ABC
However much some of us tend to wring our hands about it, there's a reason ABC's
scores those Emmy nominations year after year that often make us wonder what the voters are smoking. Several of those Emmy-bait moments occurred a week ago, in an episode about a right-to-die case involving Shirley Schmidt (Candice Bergen) and her father suffering from Alzheimer dementia, with Alan Shore (James Spader) making his usual impassioned case for his client. What made this argument more affecting than usual was the fact that Alan used his soapbox to contemplate the day when he might eventually be called on to make just such a terrible decision regarding the fate of his best friend, that tragic buffoon Denny Crane (William Shatner.)
The speech was an emotional blockbuster, and so was the tender climax as Shirley watched her father slip away. Scenes like this help convince Emmy voters that this show really is something, to paraphrase someone talking about Alan in tonight's even better episode.
But as much as I appreciated those moments last week, they were overshadowed and diminished by the cartoonish ludicrousness of what surrounded it. Not so much the silly subplot of John Larroquette as Carl Sack arguing a knowingly specious case on behalf of Nantucket nabobs coveting a nuclear bomb they could call their own. But being confronted once again with the unbearably quirky and preciously pathetic character of Jerry Espenson (Christian Clemenson, among the more inexplicable of Emmy winners, from back when he was a guest actor in the role) and Jerry's sexual peccadilloes reminded me why I'd turned away from this too-often-sophomoric series several seasons ago.
Tonight's episode is just as aggravatingly uneven, though it could easily help qualify
for a best-drama (and certainly best-actor) nomination against much more deserving candidates: a field that this year includes
The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, Damages
among other underdogs.
The primary storyline is a knockout, reminiscent of the best of David E. Kelley, as Alan reluctantly accepts a bid to argue in front of the Supreme Court, a death-penalty case (harking back to the Texas-set episode that won Spader an Emmy for the show's first season) involving a mentally deficient man who insists he did not rape an 8-year-old. Why would Alan be reluctant? "The Supreme Court isn't the place for my nonsense. Much less yours," he tells Denny, who's itching to go to D.C. to fulfill his dream of going in front of the Supreme Court. Although I think passing gas in front of the justices (each impersonated rather well) isn't what most people think of as "going" before the highest court. But this is
we're talking about, after all. And yes, Denny makes googly eyes at Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in case you were wondering.
Being older than 12, even spectacularly inappropriate fart jokes rarely send me into spasms of delighted giggles. And neither does the incredibly uninteresting subplot of tonight's episode, involving the tiresome Jerry and his extreme overreaction to learning a sordid secret about his latest unlikely girlfriend. (After last season's cast turnover, the dreadful current supporting cast seems evenly distributed between bland British women and ridiculous men like Jerry and the self-righteous former cross-dresser Clarence. All deal breakers for me.)
So why watch? For Alan's, and James Spader's, breathlessly virtuoso performance in front of the court, responding in kind when he's attacked by the impervious justices (Scalia, Alito and Chief Justice Roberts, naturally) in a preposterous but undeniably passionate challenge to the high court's obvious political conflicts of interest. When faux Alito informs Alan, "Actual innocence is not something you get to argue," Alan's response is, "Well, how silly is that?" And it goes from there. Alan's "Who
you people?" rant is terrifically entertaining, even as the script openly acknowledges its own obvious agenda.
This is the sort of flamboyant stunt that earns the show its Emmy nominations. While I'll never agree, at least I get it. Some of the show's goofy flourishes I even like, such as last week's in-joke about the writers' strike and tonight's final little grace note letting us know that they know their show will be moving to a new time period (Wednesdays at 10 pm/ET) starting next week.
the last few weeks has reminded me is that when this show delivers actual dramatic meat, it can be savory indeed. But all too often, it settles for smarmy little table scraps of inane nonsense that some may consider a hoot, but which I can't help but see as a childish waste of a potentially tremendous franchise.
As Alan and Denny enjoy their regular cigar-and-Scotch signoff this week, Denny insists, "We're not done, Alan," to which Alan replies, "Not even close." A reference, I'm sure, to the show's current "on the bubble" status, not having been renewed yet for next season. I wish I could care one way or the other.
is a show I would love to like, but as long as the likes of Jerry and Clarence- and yes, even the blustery Denny- continue to hold court, so to speak, I simply can't.