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