You ought, perhaps, to be watching Boston Legal.
Yeah, it’s a David Kelley show. He’s flashy and he goes for the cheesy drama too often and he allows his shows to slip into the precious. What’s worse, this one co-stars William Shatner, the very avatar of kitsch. Can the acting stylings of James Spader overcome these handicaps? Surely not.
But yes, because it’s fucking brilliant. Let me tell you about last Sunday’s episode.
The key plotline all season has been the relationship between Spader and Shatner, both lawyers; Shatner is a partner at the firm. He is becoming senile; the other partners are worried about the effect this will have on the firm, but Shatner is also the best rainmaker they have, so they can’t push him into retirement, and as a partner he can’t be stopped from taking cases. Spader is his only ally, and clearly his closest friend.
Last episode, Shatner took a case on his own, forgoing any assistance so as to prove a point to the partners. (Rene Auberjonois and Candice Bergen, by the by, who are quite good as always.) Spader, at the behest of the partners, asserts himself as second chair and flatters Shatner’s ego until he gives in. They’re defending a doctor who prescribed an unapproved weight-loss medication in order to keep his patient from dying of a coronary. Shatner does a great job, a surprisingly great job, of defending the client.
Then it’s time for his closing. William Shatner stands up, and braces himself, and tells the jury that he is at risk for Alzheimer’s. And then he looks down, and he’s embarrassed, and he pushes his way through it. He tells them that they wouldn’t know what it’s like to be losing it, to be slipping. He meets their eyes and you believe that it’s only because he has to. He tells them about the unapproved prescription drug he’s been taking, and how it feels to get your memory back. He finishes and walks away both relieved of a burden and weighed down by a new one, a burden he has taken voluntarily. It was great acting, lifted above the merely good by the conscious appropriation of Shatner’s typecasting. You come into this show expecting Shatner to play an aging egotistical goofball, and Shatner quietly works from that base to show you how much more there is to the character he’s playing.
It’s going to get too cute for its own good in a season or two, because it’s a David Kelley show and that’s how these always go. It’s almost too cute right now: Al Sharpton’s been a guest star twice, playing himself both times. But man, those first seasons? Those are always a rush, and this one has James Spader and William Shatner, and the older man is focused like a laser on the job of burning away everything we always laughed at about him. And he’s using his own reputation, his own myth of whimsical senility to do it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.