Outrageous behavior on reality shows may be inspiring, if that is the word, the writers of TV's episodic dramas to go even farther out on a larger number of limbs. In other words, fantasy is trying to out-freak fact, with ABC's sort-of-new "Boston Legal" leading the raucous brigade. It may be a case of going too far but in such a crazy-daisy way that it can't help but be entertaining.
One reason, perhaps the principal reason, that the reconstituted and reconfigured show sparks and sizzles is James Spader, who won raves for coming to the rescue of this series when it was still "The Practice" and David E. Kelley was its virtual auteur. Kelley has now been supplemented with additional producers for the remodeled series. And Spader goes Gucci to Gucci with William Shatner, who has a merrily cynical old time in the role of veteran attorney Denny Crane.
The writers don't seem bothered by the need to supply any reasons or motivations for the regular weekly characters to behave audaciously. Shatner's Crane wades into the dangerous waters of an affair with the wife of the firm's richest and most important client, perhaps out of boredom with the relative quiet in the firm's gleamingly gorgeous offices.
That cuckolded client is played by Philip Baker Hall, who brings to any role an aura of authority and unimpeachable dignity. Meanwhile -- and this is a show just ridded with "meanwhiles" -- the snidely smirky Alan Shore, Spader's barracudan character, agrees to take the case of a little African American girl who was, her mother says, denied the title role in a touring company of "Annie" because of her race.
The judge wants to know whether the little girl can really carry the part, so before long the courtroom is resonating with the happy strains of "Tomorrow," which of course was "Annie's" big showstopper. It's still stopping shows -- including "Head Cases," the title for this episode of "Boston Legal."
In the course of an episode that is presumably typical, fur flies, threats are threatened, loaded guns are aimed at certain faces, and the firm's distinguished partner, Edwin Poole, arrives late for the morning meeting with quite a distinction indeed: He isn't wearing any pants. Poole, played by comic Larry Miller, tells his wife via cell phone as he's being wheeled to an elevator that this is probably just a minor breakdown.
There are lots of corners in those corridors of power, and plenty of surprises waiting around them. One of the biggest in tonight's premiere has to do with the aggravated "Annie" case and a well-known, largely loved public figure who shows up to do some lobbying in the courtroom. Why shouldn't there be a black Annie, he asks. Why, indeed?!
Spader is his scintillating self, a bit puffier (and friendlier) of face, perhaps a semi-smidgen less nasty but full of dirty tricks he longs to play on fellow lawyers, partly just to help keep them from developing simplistic complexes. He has an old enemy in Brad Chase (Mark Valley), a smugly natty young fuddy-duddy who sticks up his nose at Shore's shady but often successful courtroom high jinks. Spader manages the very nifty trick of playing an utterly disarming rat.
When he sees Poole being carried out pantsless by paramedics, he deadpans rhetorically, "Is it casual Monday?"
"Boston Legal" appears to have no lofty aspirations. Some people will find fault with that, but do we really need another lawyer show in which the great issues of our time just happen to stroll through the office doors every week? This one's about heat and not light, and the absence of Great Thoughts and noble deeds is refreshing, as are the sparks that fly through the air at irregular but frequent intervals.
You get the feeling that when an episode of "Boston Legal" is filmed, instead of saying, "Lights, camera, action," somebody might well shout out, "Light the fuse -- and run like hell!"