The TV Column: 'Boston Legal' Goes Down Fighting

James Spader, left, and William Shatner of
James Spader, left, and William Shatner of "Boston Legal"; the finale airs tonight. (By Craig Sjodin -- Abc)
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By Lisa DeMoraes
Monday, December 8, 2008

When "Boston Legal" calls it a day after tonight's two-hour finale, it will not only end one of the creepiest love stories ever to hit the small screen (the Denny Crane/Alan Shore bromance now running neck-and-neck with "Grey's Anatomy's" Izzie Stevens/Dead Denny sex marathon), it will also mark the first time in more than two decades that David E. Kelley, l'enfant terrible turned angry-older-guy of TV, has not been connected to a prime-time show.

Over the years, Kelley has used his various prime-time series to prosecute cases against society's assorted ills -- and sometimes, against the TV industry itself.

"I still love television; that's probably where much of my frustration and disdain comes from," Kelley told The TV Column, about the direction the industry has taken over those two-plus decades. "The guardians of this industry are no longer good parents, and it's become more about the selling. Content is just too irrelevant too often."

ABC's "Boston Legal," about two high-priced civil lawyers at the Boston firm of Crane Poole & Schmidt, is ending its run with just half of a fifth season, after a well-fought battle with ABC.

William Shatner plays Denny Crane, a gun-toting, womanizing, Alzheimer's-suffering, increasingly bloated celebrity lawyer. James Spader is Alan Shore, a hedonistic intellectual who, over the show's run, has come to look frighteningly like Shatner. Using the show as his soapbox, Kelley has railed about virtually every hot-button issue: abortion, assisted suicide, the execution of the mentally impaired. And, like all of his series, "Boston Legal" has suffered from what industry wags call "The David Kelley Syndrome": They start out kinda quirky and get quirkier from there. By the end of Season 2, they are almost always Really Weird; by Season 3 they've usually hit Lost Touch With Reality Land. It's always a wild ride.

In typical fashion, Kelley has used the last few episodes of "Boston Legal" as part personal diary, part contact sport. But with The Reporters Who Cover Television way too busy these days covering the latest excitement about a possible "Gossip Girl" spinoff to devote any time to a legal drama populated by actors in their 50s, 60s and 70s (TV industry roadkill), Kelley's fumings have gone unnoticed.

Time was, Kelley's in-show rants created headlines.

In January '03, for instance, when ABC moved Kelley's "The Practice" -- the legal drama from which "Boston Legal" was spun off -- to Monday night, it got smashed by the Fox reality series "Joe Millionaire."

To no one's surprise, soon thereafter "The Practice" had an episode in which Andie MacDowell kidnapped actual CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, then pitched his kidnap and possible execution as a reality series to the actual head of the Fox network at the time, Sandy Grushow.

The press gobbled it up.

In last week's episode of "Boston Legal," John Larroquette, who plays Carl Sack, a senior partner in the firm, represented Betty White, who was suing the broadcast networks for age discrimination because they do not program to viewers over the age of 50.

"The airwaves, judge, are a public trust, at least as far as the broadcast networks are concerned -- that's why they're regulated," Larroquette tells the judge.

"The baby boomers, now all over 50, earn $42 trillion in annual income. That's trillion!" Larroquette continues, warming up to his subject.

"Madison Avenue is after the discretionary spender," shoots back Bald Lawyer Guy, representing the broadcast networks.

"Yes, and people over 50 account for half of that, too," Larroquette responds coolly. "Choose your statistic. Go ahead. I've got you. We've got more money. We spend more money. We watch more televisions, go to more movies, we buy more CDs than young people do and yet we're the focus of less than 10 percent of the advertising. All the networks want to do is skew younger. Kids shows for kids. You know, the only show unafraid to have its stars over 50 is 'Bos -- ' gee, I can't say it. It would, um, break the wall," Larroquette says, signaling the wall between him and viewers watching at home.

It was pure Kelley. And there was only one possible interpretation. Kelley is now over 50 and has a show whose characters are played by actors mostly 50 and up. A show ABC was wholly uninterested in bringing back for a fifth season -- mostly because the series has lost about half of its under-50 viewers compared to its first season. A show Kelley was able to get ABC to bring back for just half a season -- which meant he'd accrue the 100 episodes needed for it to be viable in syndication -- only because Kelley owned the rights to another project, "Life on Mars," which ABC desperately wanted. Kelley agreed to hand over "Life on Mars" and walk away from that project so ABC could sign up its own, more easily wrangled, show writers.

"There was no horse-trading or quid pro quo," Kelley said. "But I wanted to deal with the fate of 'Boston Legal' before dealing with the future of 'Mars.' I suspect maybe it led to slightly more favorable treatment on the 'Boston' deal." If he had not held the rights on "Mars," he speculated, "I don't think 'Boston' would ever have come back for a fifth year."

Kelley -- showing us once again why some executives at networks for which he has worked tend to think of him as a kind of brainy tsetse fly -- volunteered that ABC had pushed back on the use of the term "public trust" in that scene in last week's episode. "The network fought adamantly for us to take it out," he said.

"I think they were a little skittish of the issue," Kelley said of his having called the networks out on their whole age discrimination thing. "Broadcast Standards [department] has evolved into a much bigger beast -- they're no longer about dirty words; they will try to curtail content they think may offend sponsors or discourage sales under the auspices of 'standards.' This [episode] was really tough . . . one of the bigger ones. They did not want us telling that story."

ABC declined to comment. Kelley can afford to irk the Disney-owned network because his next project -- yet another legal dramedy, in development for next season -- is for NBC.

Tonight's last act of "Boston Legal" will not continue the network TV age discrimination story line because Kelley had too many other issues he felt had to be wrapped up quickly, what with getting only a half-season's order.

He won't say what will be in there, except "I promise to offend somebody."


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