“I’ve always prided myself on being nuts, but in this firm, I find myself falling into the sane category.” Such is Alan Shore’s (Emmy award winning James Spader) dilemma now that he’s joined the new show, Boston Legal. To play catch up, the last season of the show The Practice saw most of its cast fired and the show centering on James Spader’s character. Capitalizing on the momentum generated by Spader, ABC moved to cancel The Practice and spin it off as Boston Legal.

David E. Kelley created The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, (among others) and now, Boston Legal. He is a gifted writer when 1) he’s focused (meaning that he has only one, maybe two, shows on the air at a time); and 2) he has characters or actors that he enjoys writing for. Boston Legal has the same precarious balance, and the same inherent dangers, of Ally McBeal. It has wildly eccentric characters and situations at its core, so we’re left wondering how long can he keep this up. The show teeters on being without focus. As much as I love James Spader’s performance and clever dialogue, David E. Kelley has a tendency to have his characters saying outrageous things for the sake of outrageousness, leaving other characters little to do other than stare blankly in bewilderment.

No one plays smug, supercilious, charming pervs like James Spader. A sprawling cast that revolves around Alan Shore. Brad Chase (Mark Valley of the late, too soon canceled show Keene Eddie) sets himself up as Shore’s principal rival, both ethically and in pursuing the affections of their female colleagues. Tara Wilson (Rhona Mitra, the only other holdover from The Practice) serves as Shore’s erstwhile moral compass. Sally Heep (Lake Bell) plays his presumed love interest. And most importantly, Denny Crane (Emmy award winning William Shatner) is his mentor. There isn’t enough scene to chew when the two of them are together. No one plays pompous, egotists who love to hear themselves speak like William Shatner.

“We’re all desperate to be relevant.” Denny Crane.

Alan Shore is a complex anti-hero who wears his weaknesses on his sleeve. His disarming honesty also doubles as another emotional wall. He longs for intimacy even as he does as much as he can to destroy any chance of it. He plays coy games with Tara, both wanting her and keeping her at bay, then abruptly switches (probably due to David E. Kelley finding someone new to write for) to pursuing Sally. Sexual politics rears its head repeatedly throughout the show. Women using their sexuality to handle clients, co-workers, or judges. Men doing their best to sleep with their co-workers. The office politics of attraction, sexual tension, and relationships. In the real world, this law firm is a sexual harassment powder keg waiting to blow. But it is in this pursuit of relationships, this longing to for intimacy, that the cast uses to fill the void in their lives.

“‘What’s the point?’ … Questions like that’ll kill you. You don’t ask. That’s the point.” Denny Crane.

We have a love/hate relationship with the law. We are fascinated by its machinations. The practice of law rarely makes sense, yet we are slaves to it. This show perfectly illustrates the idea of how our legal system circumvents the spirit of the law by sticking to, and finding loopholes of interpretations in, the word of the law.

“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” (Romans 7:14).

The cast of The Practice agonized over their win at any costs mentality, and the toll it took on their souls. At the heart of The Practice was the torment of staying true to the law, even if it meant freeing rapists, murderers, and drug dealers on technicalities in its name. Alan Shore exposes the hypocrisy of the law as practiced. His amorality is the spirit of the law taken to extremes. He’s not one to easily abide authority, or as he sarcastically puts it, he’s “a slut for authority”.

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

This was Alan Shore’s lament during the last season of The Practice. Tara served to help him understand his “proclivity for exotic women and illicit behavior”. As written, Alan Shore is supposed to be 75% quintessential cad and 25% striving for good, or at least making the law work even if it means breaking the law. For example, once his firm realizes that it is about to lose a custody battle in which a no-account father wishes solely to be a jerk to his wife and kids, Shore blackmails him to acquiescence. Such is the moral quagmire in which he often finds himself. Shore is at once endearing, compelling, and appalling. Which is supposed to be good, though not quite, but it makes for interesting television.

“And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.” (Romans 7:16)

Trapped in a spiral of legal angst, even Alan Shore realizes, at some base level, that he can’t keep flouting the law then turn to it for guidance. He hates rules, ironic since somewhere in his soul he loves the ideal of the law. He also hates himself. Most times he demonstrates an ambivalence toward the ethical side of the law. But he also realizes that there are eventual consequences to the path that he has chosen. He realizes the kind of man that he is, and more critically, the kind of man he isn’t and part of the drama is seeing whether or not he keeps treading water where he is or if he decides to grow.

Boston Legal doesn’t have the inherent gravitas of The Practice, but neither does it have the over the top antics of Ally McBeal. Along with Lost and Desperate Housewives, Boston Legal looks to help ABC re-establish itself as a network after faltering for several seasons.