There are at least two reasons to watch "Boston Legal," which premieres Sunday night on ABC, and their names, in alphabetical order, are William Shatner and James Spader. They are not the only reasons -- there are some other interesting players on board, who in the fullness of time may flower into full characters (for the moment, they are more of a collection of costumes, hairstyles and physical attitudes). But Shatner and Spader, as lawyers with elastic ethics -- unconventional methods, shall we say -- are the twin islands upon which the show has been built, and all else flows around them or against them. Everyone is replaceable, Rene Auberjonois' law firm chief warns problematic senior partner Denny Crane, the character Shatner plays, but it is not, in this case, true. (Though this pairing of actors will amount to an exciting "Star Trek" crossover for some of you.)
Set in a law office devoted mainly to civil litigation, where the cleavage among the female associates is unusually ample and the hemlines unusually high, it is not so much a spinoff of "The Practice" as a transformation, having in a sense emerged reborn from the chrysalis that was that series' final season -- and which resulted in Emmys for both star Spader and guest star Shatner. The new show veers more toward comedy, of the slightly surreal sort familiar from "Ally McBeal," and that's all to the good -- the comedy offsets (and benefits from) both Spader's innate creepiness and Shatner's innate hamminess, and it is where producer David E. Kelley's own talents lie. This is in every respect a Kelley production -- high-gloss finish, quirky characters, good-looking women, ethical brain teasers -- a combination that seems to work for him about half the time. Last year's "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire" was not only bad but actually unpleasant. But "Boston Legal" hits more than it misses.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
"Boston Legal" -- In Friday's Calendar section, a review of "Boston Legal" said the ABC drama would be premiering that night. It premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday.
Of course, there are many reasons why shows fail, but they can never succeed without the right actors in the right roles. The regular viewer, after all, is making a decision to spend an enormous amount of time with these people; they have to be compelling even when they're not likable.
Spader, who was seemingly put on Earth to star in unsettling, out-of-the-mainstream movies such as "Secretary," "Crash" and "sex, lies, and videotape," is not the first actor one would think of for series television. He is not quite Crispin Glover, but he is an odd duck, soft-featured, preternaturally low-key, disturbingly boyish. His Alan Shore is a kind of happy, unflappable sociopath -- perfect qualities for a trial lawyer, one might say -- given to dumb smiles, soft-spoken barbs and an unhurried, deliberate way of moving. Whereas most television characters are constructed and played so that you know exactly what they're thinking as they think it, and what they're going to do before they do it, Shore (though you can at least expect him to do the right thing in the wrong way) remains enigmatic. By giving up so little, Spader makes him that much more interesting.
The only false note is the romance Kelley has assigned him with fellow attorney Lake Bell ("Miss Match") -- to heighten the rivalry with square-jawed ex-boyfriend Mark Valley ("Pasadena") and because sex is a subject Kelley cannot leave alone. But Spader's appeal is peculiarly nonsexual; his real chemistry here is with Shatner. Indeed, there's something sort of Kirk and Spock about them -- Shatner puffed up like a blowfish, Spader deadpan and not quite of this Earth.
Aged an unbelievable 73, Shatner delivers a typically big performance, but one perfectly appropriate to a character who conceives of himself as larger than life. Yet at the same time, it's his most modest work ever. Shatner has an unusual ability to play off his own pompousness, which makes him extremely likable, and for all kinds of reasons, not the least of them having to do with one's memories of earlier Shatners, he is a joy to watch -- that certain joy of watching the actor and the character at the same time. It helps that he is given clever things to say.
As to the strands of plot that weave through tonight's premiere, they are diverting without being particularly compelling. (One has to do with a custody dispute; the other, interestingly, with the question of casting, and features a funny little African American girl in an Orphan Annie wig, belting out a courtroom rendition of "Tomorrow.") What they do, and all they need to do, is to set the players moving.
When: 10-11 p.m. Sunday
Rating: The network has rated it TV -- 14 (may be unsuitable for young children)
James Spader...Alan Shore
William Shatner...Denny Crane
Monica Potter...Lori Colson
Mark Valley...Brad Chase
Rhona Mitra...Tara Wilson
Lake Bell...Sally Heep
Executive producers David E. Kelley, Bill D'Elia, Scott Kaufer, Jeff Rake. Creator David E. Kelley.