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Legal Aid

Thanks to Murphy Brown, TV viewers know Candice Bergen as a woman who has no problem navigating a man's world. Not surprising, then, that her first scene on ABC's law drama Boston Legal takes place in the men's room. As law partner Shirley Schmidt, Bergen makes a grand entrance on Sunday, Jan. 9, by waltzing into the restroom and dressing down Alan Shore (Golden Globe nominee James Spader) as he stands at the urinal.

''Not since the Murphy Brown pilot have I thought, 'Whoa! What a character!''' says Bergen about Shirley — her first prime-time series role since her signature CBS sitcom ended in 1998. (She'll also appear as a judge in three episodes of NBC's Law & Order spin-off Trial by Jury.) ''It's such a great introduction for her — walking in on him in the men's room. He's utterly unfazed by her, but you get the sense that everyone else [at the firm] is somewhat daunted and intimidated.''

From the moment Boston Legal's creator, David E. Kelley, developed Shirley last fall, he had Bergen in mind. ''We were looking for a very strong woman who was unflappable but very easygoing at the same time,'' he says. ''We didn't want a character who strutted around the office flexing her muscle. We wanted someone who exuded power but at the same time could be charming and sexy.''

And seasoned to boot. At 58 (and still as gorgeous as ever), Bergen brings a much-needed maturity to a show that's desperate to retain the women who tune in to its blockbuster lead-in, Desperate Housewives. Though Legal has been winning its time slot among adults 18 -49 and averaging 12.1 million total viewers, it retains only 54 percent of those who enjoy the suburban sudser. Admits Kelley, ''The 10 o'clock real estate happens to be extremely precious when you have a juggernaut like Housewives, and ABC wants to figure out — and I don't blame them — how to hang on to as much of the Housewives audience as we can.''

Kelley also needs to get a better grip on the show's creative direction: Expectations were high for the pairing of William Shatner and Spader on Boston Legal, especially after both won Emmys in September for their work on The Practice. But Legal quickly spiraled into a less inspired knockoff of Kelley's Ally McBeal: Silly dramedy was punctuated by vapid quirkiness, flat dialogue, and poorly drawn female characters. ''It's just been an odd show to craft, so it's required more involvement than I originally anticipated,'' says Kelley, who has changed his role on Legal from an out-of-town producer (he relocated with his family to Northern California last summer) to more of a hands-on writer. ''The growing pains have been mostly tonal. We want to find stories with stakes but without the severity we were accustomed to on The Practice. The cases will be more fun.''

As will the action outside of court. Betty White will reprise her Emmy-nominated role as a vengeful old neighbor from The Practice. Alan will resume his tomcat ways after his playful flirtation with Sally Heep (Lake Bell) is out of the picture — Kelley says the economics of Bergen's deal forced him to drop one character, and that he chose Bell because viewers have had a hard time relating to her weak-as-a-daisy (and we'll say it: trampy) young lawyer. Meanwhile, Shirley casts her sex appeal over Shatner's Denny Crane, who admits that he still carries a torch for his former lover. ''Denny calls it a torrid affair, while I just call it a horrid affair,'' explains Bergen. ''She cuts him no slack.''

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