By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006
It's the best love story on television.
Not Homer and Marge. Not that cute married couple on "Medium." Not the HBO polygamists.
It's Denny Crane and Alan Shore in the ABC Tuesday night hit "Boston Legal."
Each episode of the two-year-old dramedy, a spinoff of ABC's "The Practice," ends with lawyers Crane (played by William Shatner) and Shore (James Spader) relaxing on the high-rise balcony of their Boston firm of Crane Poole & Schmidt, recounting their day and their lives thus far.
Sometimes, the two puff cigars. Sometimes, they enjoy a Scotch. Always, they express their love to one another in ways circumspect, confounding, tough, tender and touching. One exchange, in which the characters confessed their many faults to each other, created a signature moment for the pair:
Denny: I'm unfaithful.
Alan: Never to me.
Really, that's all a guy can ask.
Denny Crane and Alan Shore are perhaps the best example of postmodern, heterosexual man-love -- call it a male-la tionship -- currently available in the mass media. It has been a long time coming. We modern men have had to tame our Eternal Caveman, shake off centuries of reflexive homophobia, escape the mythopoetic feely-thicket of Iron Johnliness in order to finally -- finally -- get to this place.
In the relationship between Denny and Alan we find refuge, permission and proxy. Here and now -- "Boston Legal" tells us -- modern hetero-man can freely love fellow hetero-man without worrying about whether it makes us gay, without spending time thinking and talking about our feelings (gaack!) and without expressing affection solely through physical competition, like pickup basketball.
The show, by producer David E. Kelley ("The Practice," "Ally McBeal," "Boston Public"), was created as an ensemble cast. But Shatner and Spader quickly took it over simply by force of personality. Their first balcony scene, for instance, was just one more shot in the show's early episodes, drawn up as counterpoint to the many scenes in the courtroom and the office.
But viewer reaction to the loving repartee between Shatner and Spader was so positive that Kelley and the show's writers quickly made a balcony scene the capstone of each episode. The show, which enters its third season Tuesday, has produced solid ratings. Last season, "Boston Legal" averaged about 10 million viewers per episode, finishing second in the 10 p.m. Tuesday time slot to NBC's "Law & Order: SVU."
Buoyed by such viewer feedback, the writers began to pair up the two in other, off-balcony situations, taking the male-bonding relationship to unexpected but natural-feeling levels of closeness: a fishing trip that included a spooning scene in bed, dressing as matching flamingos at a party, and being tied together with a rope as Denny kept Alan from hurting himself while sleepwalking during an attack of night terrors.
Shatner's Denny is a lawyer-celebrity, a reflexive libertine five times married, a gun-toter (in the office) and quite possibly an Alzheimer's sufferer devoted to making money and the priapic rush of winning cases. Spader's Alan is a hedonist intellectual, always ready with a Wildean riposte, self-destructive and self-loathing, willing to hire thugs to rough up a foe and hating himself for doing it. They are both wounded, deeply flawed characters, at once lovable, pitiable and noble in their majestic ruin.
Yet, like many successful couples, they are opposites in some ways. Alan has a bleeding heart where Denny is a troglodyte right-winger. Alan lays open his weaknesses while Denny tries to suppress them. And there is a 30-year age gap between the two.
Perhaps it's not surprising that the person who pens most of Shatner and Spader's lines is a woman: Janet Leahy is the executive producer and a writer for "Boston Legal."
"I think of their relationship as [their] having sex with women, but they're married to each other," she says.
Indeed, the pair fit the archetype of many fictional husband-wife teams -- Ralph and Alice Kramden, Archie and Edith Bunker, George and Louise Jefferson, Rob and Laura Petrie -- bantering, picking at each other, being disappointed in each other, reveling in each other's accomplishments. The pair also draw on the lineage of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Oscar and Felix, Butch and Sundance and other teams that might as well have been married.
Denny Crane and Alan Shore, however, create intimacies never reached by their slapstick forebears. (HBO watchers will be familiar with this brand of dramatic man-love from last season's "Rome" and the soldier-suitors Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus.)
In interviews, Shatner and Spader talk about how the other actor smells, so close is their on-screen contact.
"It's a very funny friendship that Bill and I have and that Denny and Alan have; it really is," Spader says from California. "We go together."
Shatner and Spader had never worked together before the show. Because Spader's academic parents forbade most television watching, he had only a glancing awareness of Shatner's legendary "Star Trek" past. On the phone, between "Boston Legal" takes at a studio in Manhattan Beach, Spader sounds like a looser version of his controlled Alan Shore character, laughing easily and enthusiastically engaging in the conversation.
Like their characters, Shatner and Spader are quite different. Their "Boston Legal" co-star Rene Auberjonois says that if Shatner's approach to a scene doesn't work, he'll try something else, unfazed by failure. Spader prepares meticulously for each scene, Auberjonois says, and makes laserlike choices.
"I think that when two people are so different, they have an understanding of that and they tend to forgive everything" the other does, Spader says. "If you start from the premise that you're dichotomous in so many ways, you forgive. Bill and I are like that and Alan and Denny are like that."
What distinguishes the characters' friendship is their deep involvement in each other's lives. Alan often acts as Denny's conscience, and there's a willingness to rebuke each other when necessary, or absorb the other's anger, that's more commonly found in a marriage.
"They even enjoy how they drive each other mad; somehow, they feed off of it," Spader says. "They are exactly what they need, whether it be challenging and provoking the other person or supporting and nurturing them."
Shatner wonders if the relationship might be "atavistic."
"The prehistoric men would go out and try and find a mastodon with their spears and their rocks," Shatner begins, also speaking from California during a break in filming. (We've interviewed the man before, and so recognize a good quote is unspooling and stick with him.) "So Bob went left and George went right and Fred decided to go in the middle and stick the spear in the stomach of the mastodon and George had to help save Fred. It became a bonding thing that is not seen too much in our civilization today," Shatner continues, "but is seen a great deal in the military where combat becomes the activity of the moment.
"It's possible to rationalize this relationship [on "Boston Legal"] in the war of life that is being faced by the lawyers in this firm," Shatner concludes. "They are bonded in that kind of unity."
And theirs isn't boy-bonding. "Animal House," "Stripes," "Wedding Crashers," "Caddyshack" and so on feature the high jinks of adult adolescents, charming in their ramshacklery, irresistible to women with their "Who's your buddy?" ways.
Denny Crane and Alan Shore are men, secure in their masculinity, bound together like Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin of Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander" books. Where Denny and Alan have their balcony, Jack and Stephen had their violin-and-cello duos; the two as close and harmonious as a dyad.
Bruno Heller calls such paired relationships "wish fulfillment" for male viewers.
Heller is the executive producer and co-creator of "Rome." Set in the time of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, the HBO series pivots on the aforementioned relationship of two Roman soldiers played by Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson.
"In real life, those kinds of intimate, close, loving relationships [between men] are very rare," Heller says from Rome, where he is shooting the show's upcoming season, set to begin in January. "Romantic love is relatively easy to find in the world. But to find a friend of that sort you can rely on through thick and thin . . . is rare. It's a great charge for men in watching that kind of friendship blossom. It's something that a lot of men wish they had but don't have with each other."
Stevenson's Titus Pullo is a soulful brute, a saturnalian legionnaire of huge appetites for wine, women and blood, who admires and is fiercely loyal to his friend. McKidd's Lucius Vorenus is Pullo's commanding officer, a professional soldier and honorable family man, at once appalled by Pullo's ways yet protective of him. In one scene, Vorenus defies Caesar and leaps into a gladiators' ring to save the condemned Pullo's life just as he is about to be killed.
Heller says it's refreshing to see such male-on-male hetero love affairs being well received by audiences. In the past, he says, such male bonding was acceptable only among groups of men, such as on a sports team or in movies like "Diner."
"I think the true test would be to see an on-screen relationship between a gay man and a straight man," Heller says. "As with a relationship between a man and a woman, it would be nice to see that unresolved sexual tension played out in [a] male relationship . . . and have it just be a part of the grit of the relationship."
On-screen chemistry between characters isn't necessarily an indication of real-life affection between actors. But in this case, it might be.
Shatner took Spader and his girlfriend to a tennis tournament over the summer. Even better, Shatner -- a longtime breeder of quarter horses -- recently bought an American saddle horse and named it Alan Shore.
"It's the perfect horse for the Alan Shore character," Shatner says. "He's puffed-up, he's marvelous, he's jaunty but very steady."
Shatner says that he's looking for a horse to name "Denny Crane."
Which naturally makes us ask: What kind of horse would that be?
Shatner laughs. "A sweaty, wild-gaited horse who doesn't know whether to perform or sire," he says.
If this were a different era, someone would no doubt take this opportunity to weigh in with some Freudian, homo-equino claptrap. Thankfully, we're past that.