Order In the Court!

As I recall, I discovered Perry Mason, somewhere in the early-to-mid 1960s, when I was in grade school. I don’t recall if I first found the Erle Stanley Gardner books or the TV show starring Raymond Burr. I am sure one followed the other very quickly (probably why I don’t remember which was first). Either way, it started a love affair with courtroom drama that exists still today.

The most recent courtroom drama I’m aware of is The Good Wife (2009–2016), and I just finished re-watching that series on Hulu. There is a spin-off, The Good Fight, done by the same producers, and which has some of the supporting actors, but which is part of CBS’s streaming service, so it’s not really on my menu.

And then there’s an old show called The Practice (1997–2004)

Back when I was still buying DVDs — very many of them being seasons of old TV shows I loved or never saw (probably 80% of my collection was TV series) — I bought the first season of The Practice, but only ever found that first season.

Or maybe it was two (or three?) seasons, since I remember Lara Flynn Boyle as DA Helen Gamble, and Boyle didn’t appear in the series until season two. (I’ve since donated those DVDs to the library and no longer have them.)

Regardless, I never got to see the entire series, so I was pretty happy when the whole thing showed up on Hulu!

Loved this show!

Because here’s the thing about The Practice: It spun off one of my favorite TV series of all time: Boston Legal (2004–2008).

(Not just a favorite courtroom drama series, but a favorite TV series!)

If you’re familiar with Boston Legal, you know it’s a tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking, absolute delight of a series starring William Shatner and James Spader as Denny Crane and Alan Shore.

(The two end up as a legally married couple, mainly so that good friend Alan Shore can be there to care for and protect Denny Crane, who is slipping into early-onset Alzheimers.)

I’d heard long ago that Spader’s character started on The Practice, and ever since I’ve wanted to see that.

(Both shows are from David E. Kelley, who is also responsible for Ally McBeal (1997–2002) and LA Law (1986–1994). I loved the latter, but never watched the former.)

§

I loathe that guy!

But here’s the other thing about The Practice, at least for me: I came to deeply and truly loathe the main character, Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott).

Especially in the fifth, sixth, and seventh seasons.

By the seventh season, I couldn’t wait for him to be gone — it turns out the character resigns at the end of that season, so the eighth season (the one with James Spader) is a whole different deal.

And it really is a whole different deal.

There are signs of that tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness that made Boston Legal such a delight. There’s an absolute night-and-day difference in the four episodes I’ve seen so far and the seven seasons that precede it.

More importantly, there isn’t the pall of the Bobby Donnell character (or, for that matter, the tense edginess of the Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) character.

For those who never watched the show, Lindsay Dole starts off as a lawyer in Donnell’s criminal defense firm, but eventually becomes his lover and then his wife (and mother of Bobby, Jr.), but then in the later seasons their marriage goes sour and they divorce.

Why? Because Bobby Donnell is a complete asshole!

He’s one of the least self-aware, most self-centered, downright hostile pricks I’ve ever had the displeasure to have to host on my TV screens. In my book he has not one single redeeming aspect.

I am so glad he’s gone, and I’ll never have to watch him again.

§

I’m a little reminded of how people used to slam Jonathan Frakes for being a wooden actor in his portrayal of Commander Will Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

My question always was: Is it that Frakes is a wooden actor, or is he a good actor portraying a wooden man — which Riker certainly was (I personally voted for the later).

Here my question is: Is Dylan McDermott an actor with a limited toolkit, or is he a good actor portraying a severely emotionally impaired man?

I’ve only ever really seen McDermott in the one-season comedy LA to Vegas, which I thought was pretty funny, and he was pretty good in that.

He seems a good comic actor, and comedy is harder than drama, so I’m willing to believe the Donnell character was written and directed to be a total asshole.

By the seventh season, Bobby seems to start every line with a sigh, as if talking is just too much bother, and equally seems to be constantly stuck in utter exasperated with everything and everybody mode.

It’s possible to read this as a man whose emotional and character defects ultimately bring his entire being into question leaving him lost and unable to move forward.

Regardless, I don’t care, I just came to loathe putting up with him.

§

So much better!

Maybe its like the old joke about the guy hitting himself in the head with a hammer.

Why?

Because it feels so good when he stops.

Maybe the eighth season seems so much nicer because I’m not hitting myself in the head with a hammer anymore.

And Spader’s Alan Shore really is delightful — he’s always been one of my favorite fictional TV characters.

One of the things that seriously got under my skin about the first seven seasons is that everyone seems to be yelling at each other. Every conversation seems to involve yelling. Characters have extremely thin skins, and insisting on a point always involves loud voices.

I hated that, and it seems to be gone in the eighth season — Alan Shore, for one, is very soft spoken. (Maybe it has something to do with a superior actor, which Spader is in spades.)

§

The first seven seasons weren’t all bad (or I would have given up).

It was fun to see the various guest stars, such as (to name just a handful), Jon Cryer, Tony Danaz, Rebecca De Mornay, Viola Davis, Gina Gershon, C.C.H. Pounder, Marlee Matlin, Christopher Reeve, Sharon Stone, Alfre Woodard, Chris O’Donnell, and John Larroquette (who was delightfully evil).

Some of the guests, along with stars Spader and Rhona Mitra, went on to star in Boston Legal, in some cases reprising their character.

And many of the court cases were interesting, and I do love a good courtroom scene, although I frequently took some exception to how those cases were written (for max melodrama) and executed.

They did, at least sometimes, do a good job of presenting a case you initially see as pretty black and white, but as it unfolds you begin to see it’s not that simple. That’s my favorite kind of courtroom drama!

Because life is so rarely black and white.

§ §

Which brings me to The Good Wife and something it took watching the entire series twice to pick up on (assuming I am picking up on something that’s really there).

Life, and the law, are not black-and-white!

Above is a frame from the show’s title sequence. It’s meant to be a four-color halftone of a black-and-white photograph. It’s what you’d see if you looked very closely at a newspaper or tabloid picture.

The process can render a decent approximation of a full-color photo somewhat the same way a printed color photo or color transparency (color slide) does. It’s also exactly the technique some color printers use.

Essentially, it’s a subtractive color system that uses magenta, cyan, and yellow, plus black (for deeper shadows and blacks).

In this case it’s supposedly rendering a black-and-white photo, but if you look closely, you see the four separate colors!

I think the subliminal message is that, even though things sometimes seem black-and-white, when you truly look at them, they rarely are.

Life just isn’t that simple.

This could be my imagination, of course, and maybe it’s just meant as cool imagery for the title sequence, or maybe it’s just meant to reflect the tabloids and newspapers. (If you’re familiar with the show, you know they play a role.)

But given that the best courtroom dramas, or even just legal shows in general, usually try to make both sides of a case sympathetic, and so often turn on the nuances of law and life, I think maybe I’m right.

§

In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching the show. No well-told story reveals itself entirely on the first viewing, and the best stories often reveal themselves only after repeated viewings (or readings or hearings).

The writing, the acting, and the stories, are all top-notch. And I’d love to hang out or be friends with most of the characters on the show — something that’s really important to my enjoyment of any TV series. I’m a little picky about who I let into my living room on a  regular basis.

And as with The Practice, this show also has had some wonderful supporting actors and guest stars over the years. I especially liked Eli Gold (Alan Cumming).

If you’re looking for a good lawyer show, and haven’t ever seen this one, I highly recommend it!

Stay legal, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Order In the Court!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Perry Mason is available on Amazon Prime (along with another great old show, Danger Man, with Patrick McGoohan, and so is The Prisoner, which many (incorrectly) view as the sequel).

    The Good Wife, The Practice, and Boston Legal, are available on Hulu (and perhaps elsewhere). I believe they also have Ally McBeal, but I haven’t seen LA Law anywhere, yet.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s the title sequence of The Good Wife:

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Can’t say I ever was into court room drama. I did watch some of the Perry Mason show as a kid, but that was largely a factor of being at home in the summer in the days before cable. I did watch a few episodes of Law and Order back in the day, and was pretty drawn in to those episodes, but it never seemed to lock me in enough to keep coming back.

    Your issues with the Donnell character remind me of our conversation a while back about fiction providing an emotional experience that draws us in, even if it isn’t a positive one. I remember when I was watching The Sopranos, largely appalled, but like watching a disaster in progress, was unable to look away.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Can’t say I ever was into court room drama.”

      I don’t know what it is that I find so interesting — I never had any inclination to be a lawyer, but I do find the law interesting.

      When I was in high school theatre, we did a play, called The Night Of January 16th (written by Ayn Rand, no less!), which is a courtroom drama. The play has two endings. As the audience members arrive for the play, 12 volunteers are selected to be the “jury” and, after the bulk of the play is done those 12 retire to the “jury room” to decide the defendant’s fate. The two endings are whichever way they decide.

      At one point during the play, a supporting character suddenly realizes, due to testimony, that he was responsible for the death. He isn’t the killer, but did some action that allowed the death (or so he believes). He’s planted in the audience and springs to his feet crying, “I did it! I did it!”

      One night I was sitting right next to him, and even though I knew the exact moment (had seen it many times in rehearsal), it still startled me big time.

      But it was one of my favorite plays we did that year because I love courtroom drama! 😀

      “I did watch a few episodes of Law and Order back in the day, and was pretty drawn in to those episodes, but it never seemed to lock me in enough to keep coming back.”

      My experience is similar. I didn’t even think to mention the show here. I also tend to like police procedurals, so I’m not sure why L&O never grabbed me. Kinda weird, actually…

      “I remember when I was watching The Sopranos, largely appalled, but like watching a disaster in progress, was unable to look away.”

      I think I’ve mentioned that I can take that sort of thing, Bad Guy Heroes (which are different to me than anti-heroes), in a movie, but I just can’t deal with it in a series — too much of a bad thing.

      I think it’s due to seeing bad people too much in real life and blaming the world’s woes on them. They’re the last thing I want in my stories, which, for me, are a way to escape the shitty world.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        For me, it depends on the context. I generally dislike noir, where everyone is morally depraved and so is the entire world, and thinking otherwise is naive. Maybe it’s true, but I don’t want to be reminded of it. (I actually don’t think it’s true.)

        On the other hand, I do like gritty stories. I think they can be so without taking the noir attitude. A large part of it, for me, is that at least some of the characters need to be sympathetic. They don’t need to be paragons (unless there’s an explanation for it), but I need to at least feel some kind of affinity with them.

        That might be why those L&O episodes individually attracted me, but not collectively. I remember feeling sympathy for the characters directly involved, but not anything in particular for the recurring characters (the lawyers, etc).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I generally dislike noir,”

        As an aside, just a twitch of mine, I first encountered the term as “film noir” while I was a film student in college, so I tend to associate the term more with the visual style than fully defined “a genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.”

        (The canonical film being The Maltese Falcon, which I happened to re-watch (for the umpteenth time) recently because I bought an ebook collection of Dashiell Hammett’s stories and wanted to compare the novel with the film. A lot of the film’s dialog is word-for-word from the book, and even a lot of the book’s “stage directions” made it into the film. Truly an outstanding adaptation.)

        ((And then there’s a modern form, “Florida noir” — almost entirely a cinematic style, I think, for which the canonical film is the outstanding Body Heat. Florida noir adds tropical heat and humidity to the mix.))

        “(I actually don’t think it’s true.)”

        No, nor do I. And it seems we have somewhat similar views here.

        “I need to at least feel some kind of affinity with them.”

        Exactly! Which is why I came to like The Expanse, but won’t touch Breaking Bad and (after two seasons) decided Game of Thrones wasn’t my cuppa (Tyrion just wasn’t enough of a draw).

        I think our experience of L&O was similar. It was interesting in often focusing on how the law fails and how innocent people get screwed by it, or in showing how the guilty get off free, but that gets old after a while.

        (The Practice was similar in that regard. It centers on criminal defense lawyers and frequently was about their angst in freeing the guilty, especially when they used extreme measures (e.g. attacking the victim or family) in the pursuit of “zealously” defending their client. As you say: ” Maybe it’s true, but I don’t want to be reminded of it.”)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I actually like The Maltese Falcon, and I know it’s cited as the quintessential noir film, but it feels materially different from the stuff that started in the late 40s. Sam Spade is definitely no saint, but I still sensed enough there to cheer for him. Admittedly, if the ending had turned out differently, I might be less enthusiastic.

        I actually found a number of characters in GoT sympathetic: Tyrion, Jon, Arya, Samwell Tarly, etc. I never got the feeling that everyone is evil or stupid that typical noir evokes. But I know a lot of people found it to be fantasy without what they regarded as the best parts of fantasy.

        I’m with you on Breaking Bad though. I know the protagonist starts off sympathetic and gradually descends into darkness. I’ve never been particularly keen to watch that kind of story, at least not one that I know ends in that darkness.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Sam Spade is definitely no saint, but I still sensed enough there to cheer for him.”

        No, he’s sleeping with his partner’s wife, after all, but he does have a moral code he follows. (His character is even more apparent in the Hammett Sam Spade stories.)

        “But I know a lot of people found it to be fantasy without what they regarded as the best parts of fantasy.”

        That has at least as much, if not more, to do with my rejection of it as other aspects. (For instance, I tend to shy away from extremely trendy things.) That said, I didn’t personally find much to like in the characters you named. I was far more drawn to the characters in The Expanse.

        As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’m just not into the Medieval time period, and dragons never did much for me. And, despite considering Terry Pratchett’s Discworld my all-time favorite SF&F, I’m actually not that into fantasy — there needs to be something “special” about it (humor is a big draw, hence Pratchett and Robert Asprin and some Roger Zelazny).

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: