Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

David Papke
is a law professor at the Marquette University Law School




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The chief satirical target in Boston Legal is the legal profession and, in particular, self-impressed and immoral lawyers.

Feature article

Satire in Boston Legal

by David Papke

Boston Legal does not add to the convention of the dramatic courtroom trial that has been a mainstay of primetime legal drama since the emergence of network programming in the late 1940s. Boston Legal also does not significantly advance the portrayal of small law firms, the lawyers therein, and the tortured relationships among them. L. A. Law established the law firm sub-genre in the late 1980s, and it has continued to be part of primetime through The Practice up to the present. However, Boston Legal has given television viewers a fresh satirical look at lawyers and legal practice, and this satirical dimension of the series may be its most noteworthy feature. The viewing public's positive response to satire in Boston Legal may also be suggestive of what lawyers have come to represent in the culture of postmodern America.

Satire is a venerable form of cultural expression that lampoons or ridicules a subject by making it look ridiculous. If well executed, satire amuses the reader or viewer more so than it provokes hatred or contempt. There is a lightness or playfulness to the best satire. How does satire differ from comedy in general? Comedy produces laughter in and of itself, but satire is more specialized. In playfully deriding and derogating, satire makes fun of something that exists outside the given anecdote, short story, movie, or television drama. The chief satirical target in Boston Legal is the legal profession and, in particular, self-impressed and immoral lawyers.

The two most developed satirical characters in the series are Denny Crane and Alan Shore. The former is portrayed by William Shatner, who is of course known to one and all for his portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek. Earlier in his career Shatner also played an earnest law clerk in the heavy-handed film Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and an idealistic prosecutor in For the People (CBS; 1965). In Boston Legal Shatner's Denny Crane is a buffoonish lawyer, who seems to suffer from some variety of dementia but who nevertheless continues to believe he is "the greatest trial attorney that ever lived." Crane frequently conveys this sentiment with the simple phrase "Denny Crane." Yes, some lawyers are a deluded, unduly self-impressed lot, and what's even more sobering is that the inept courts and superficial legal system often defer - or so Boston Legal tells us - to these delusions and self-impressions.

James Spader plays the lawyer Alan Shore. Less recognizable for viewers than Shatner, Spader has nevertheless strung together a long list of acting credits, often playing characters with a pathological side. Especially noteworthy in this regard is his creepy performance in the film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). In Boston Legal Shore has left the firm of Young, Berlutti & Fruitt of The Practice and joined the more white-shoe Crane, Poole & Schmidt, where he has made his mark taking (and usually winning) cases nobody else wants. Shore does not let such things as integrity and honesty impede his practice. His conduct and comments are a satire of the conduct and comments of the ethically-challenged lawyer, who is the source of so many jokes and cartoons in contemporary American culture. How are lawyers different than vultures? Only lawyers qualify for frequent-flyer mileage.

Boston Legal is only partially satirical, and it is not the first primetime legal drama to satirize lawyers. Ally McBeal's partner John Cage, after all, prepared for trial by listening to Barry White tapes, and he was the best litigator in the firm! However, the sustained excellence of the satire in Boston Legal is notable, and when we finish laughing and smirking, we might contemplate what the lawyer has come to symbolize in our culture. Gone and perhaps not even remembered is De Tocqueville's sense that lawyers were America's most honored and distinguished profession, the symbolic elite of a democratic people. In contemporary America they might and often do serve as the butt of satire.

Posted April 4, 2005

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