No other current scripted TV series is as political, topical or self-referential as ABC's "Boston Legal." After tomorrow night, the show will disappear, ending its five-year run.
Created and largely written by David E. Kelley, "Boston Legal," which began as a spin-off of Kelley's "The Practice," probably won't go gently in its two-hour finale Monday (9 p.m., WTAE).
- When: 9-11 p.m. Monday, ABC.
- Starring: James Spader, William Shatner.
Already this fall, the series has addressed legal cases involving the tobacco industry, the USDA, pharmaceutical advertising, the presidential campaign and the election of Barack Obama.
"We can give thanks for a lot of things today, but the defeat of racism is not one of them, especially at white-collar law firms like Crane, Poole & Schmidt," said liberal lawyer Alan Shore (James Spader) in the recent Thanksgiving episode. "Just look around the table."
Crane, Poole & Schmidt is the law firm at the center of the series, filled with eccentric lawyers, most of them Caucasian. Through the years the firm's attorneys have included a former madam, a cross-dresser and a man with Asperger's syndrome.
"Our show is about ideas and it became very organic to make politics part of this show," Kelley said in a phone interview last week. "Our best shows were the ones we'd sit down to write three or four weeks before they'd air. ... One of our writers was an ex-journalist and he used to get calls from his colleagues in the news business and at newsmagazine shows saying they were envious. We got to tell stories they wanted to do but were not allowed to because it was not hot enough copy for the news."
"Boston Legal" offered another showcase role for 77-year-old William Shatner -- after Capt. Kirk on "Star Trek" and his lead in "T.J. Hooker" -- who stars as Republican Denny Crane, who suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, which he frequently refers to as "mad cow."
"This is a country that regulates everything," Crane said in a recent episode, "except Wall Street and the rich, who we let run amok, but everything else."
Although never a ratings hit, "Boston Legal" has consistently ranked a competitive second in its time period as it did this past Monday against CBS's "CSI: Miami" and NBC's already-canceled "My Own Worst Enemy." Last week it built audience from lead-in "Samantha Who?" in both demographic and household ratings.
Although there may be a perception that because of its older cast, which also includes 62-year-old Candice Bergen and 61-year-old John Larroquette, "Boston Legal" skews older, the series ranks No. 37 (out of 295 broadcast series) both in the 18-49 demo and in household ratings this season.
The series addressed the issue of network ageism last week when recurring character Catherine Piper (Betty White) sought to sue TV networks for discrimination against older viewers.
"It seems they don't program to anyone over 50," Catherine said. "Is it any wonder I'm off knocking over convenience stores?"
Carl Sack (Larroquette) took her case and argued that by ignoring older viewers, broadcast networks -- and by implication, ABC -- are forsaking their role as a public trust.
"What they're doing is discriminating against a class of society. That's bigotry," Sack said before enumerating TV's obsession with youthful characters and young-skewing reality shows. "Old people, the ones with intelligence, don't want to watch that crap. We're fed up. The networks may think we're dead but we're very much alive with working brains. Give us something to watch, dammit!"
Sack stopped short of referring to "Boston Legal" itself. "The only show not afraid to have its stars over 50 is 'Bos-.' Gee, I can't say it. It would break the wall."
As if breaking the fourth wall ever stopped Kelley.
In recent episodes a cell phone's ring tone was the theme from "The Practice" and dialogue referenced Shatner's Priceline commercials. Last week's episode even included talk of tomorrow's "finale" as Denny and Alan go to the Supreme Court to argue a case relating to Denny's access to a trial Alzheimer's drug.
"Now there's a finale," Denny said.
"They should put it on TV," Alan added.
"It'd get ratings," Denny chimed in.
"If they promoted us," Alan snarked. "But I think there's a law against promoting us."
"Seems to be," Denny concluded.
That dialogue echoed what Kelley had to say about ABC's reasons for ending the series.
"ABC didn't want us back," he said. "It's as simple as that. They didn't even want us back for this year at all. We had to fight to get back on with 13. It's not a product they care to market."
The producer said he never received much feedback from the upper echelons of ABC management.
"Five years into the show, if anyone has ever seen the show at ABC, they've yet to bring it to my attention," he said, noting that lack of network interest can be both a blessing and a curse. He was able to make the series as he saw fit but ABC's lack of interest resulted in limited promotion.
He attributes the disinterest to business practices: 20th Century Fox Television produces "Boston Legal" for ABC; ABC doesn't own the series as it does "Lost," "Desperate Housewives" and other programs on its schedule.
"That's the stuff they're looking to champion," he said. "Even though our numbers are solid, not huge, I think the conventional wisdom at ABC, and I don't know this, but I'm guessing they continue to believe they can develop their own product and get that [rating] number and then also share in the profits."
Kelley said he thinks "Boston Legal" could have continued for one more season beyond this year, but he doesn't feel robbed. "I feel satisfied we had run a good course."
Contact TV editor Rob Owen at email@example.com or 412-263-1112.