Last night, hundreds of people piled into the Writer's Guild Theater in Beverly Hills for a serious discussion of a fundamental question: "What is narrative television's role in public policy?" Such a question, one surely asked every day in Hollywood, can only be answered by one man: William Shatner.
The cast and creators of Boston Legal joined Arianna Huffington -- an admitted "Boston Legal addict" who came to inhale -- to talk about the show and its uncanny ability to mix timely political discourse with prime time entertainment. Creator David E. Kelley, executive producer Bill D'Elia, and cast members William Shatner, James Spader, Candice Bergen, Christian Clemenson, and new cast member John Larroquette all arrived to a standing ovation from a crowd that waited over an hour to get seats, with dozens of hopefuls getting turned away at the door.
Huffington began the discussion by asking Kelley if it was difficult to follow The Practice with the spin-off Boston Legal. Surprisingly, Kelley said it wasn't hard at all. "We were convinced it would fail," he said. This turned out to be their biggest creative asset because it allowed Kelley and his staff to take on touchy subject matter and unconventional characters without fear of failure. "If you think you're only going to last for a finite amount of time," Kelley said, "you might as well swing for the fences and try to have fun."
While most television programs run as far away from the hot-button issues as possible, Kelley actually seeks them out. Issues like the Iraq War, the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, global warming, Hurricane Katrina, and political correctness all get confronted head-on week after week on Boston Legal without coming off as preachy. Huffington claimed that she doesn't know how Kelley manages to do it, but "maybe he could teach the people in Washington how."
This turned out to be the central question of the night: how does Boston Legal walk the line between political debate and entertainment? Kelley claims he is drawn to the issues not by some desire to promote some hard-lined ideological worldview but because he struggles with these issues himself and enjoys "mining them through his characters."
But the discussion wasn't all politics. Fans got a good share of red meat with some behind the scenes trivia (Spader and Clemenson went to high school together) and some heartfelt discussion on the possibility of men having meaningful, emotive relationships with each other like Spader's and Shatner's relationship on Boston Legal. Shatner admitted that he never had an "honest friendship [with a man] that dispensed with pretense," but with women, it was another story. There were plenty of such relationships there. When Huffington asked if sex was involved in these relationships with women, Shatner did not miss a beat before boldly proclaiming "always!"
Fans also got a preview of what's to come in season four of Boston Legal. Most promising of all is the arrival of John Larroquette. Larroquette -- who won an Emmy for his guest role on The Practice -- will play a senior partner from the New York office who gets involved with a certain female partner at the law firm (*cough* Candice Bergen *cough*). Bergen and Huffington rejoiced that 60 seems to be "the new 30" when it comes to sex on TV. Bergen joked, "It's amazing that David does this and people buy it." While it's hard to buy that anyone is good enough for Candice Bergen, Larroquette's white, Byronic mane stands as good a chance as anyone.
Yet even all the playfulness couldn't detract from The Big Question: should dramatic television engage in politics? Kelley is not certain that television should "strive to have a podium," but he hopes that "the landscape has room for at least one show" to tackle these issues in dramatic form. "And if there is room for one show," he said, "then let it be us!" In a time when the government views dissent as unpatriotic, "someone has to be screaming about this," Kelley said, "and if it's our characters, so be it."
But the Boston Legal team is reluctant to press this point too hard. They believe the key to the show's success is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. "I would loathe this show if all it was was a platform for change," Spader said. "It doesn't just try to do political but does it while it's trying to be silly and irreverent about itself. Any one of those elements alone would be terrible," according to Spader. "It's the strange mix ... the cocktail ... that makes it great."
Right now, Boston Legal may be the only game in town, but hopefully its example (and Emmy nominations) will light the way for other shows to scream what's on everyone's mind.