From Chicago Hope to Boston Public, most David E. Kelley shows share a common devolutionary arc: They start as provocatively offbeat social-ethical dramas, then gradually get in touch with their inner, quirky Ally McBeal after which it's just a matter of time before they jump the shark.
But Boston Legal is different: Like the whimsical McBeal, it's been over-the-top from the start but it has a harder, ruder edge, as embodied by the smarmily sarcastic Alan Shore (James Spader) and the blustery, short-term-memory-challenged Denny Crane (William Shatner), two alpha-male lawyers who aren't above cheap courtroom theatrics and dubious backroom deals, if it means a favorable verdict. Yet there's depth here, too: They and their colleagues take on cases involving Sudanese genocide, mad cow disease, intelligent design, cryogenic preservation, and a divorced couple's custody battle over their son's umbilical cord.
Sure, these are the same sorts of issues that Kelley tackled on The Practice (the series from which Legal spun off), and most of the scenarios have that familiar tinge of Kelleyesque absurdism. But this time he makes no pretense of gritty Practice-like realism. He lets his lawyers be larger-than-life, as played by two actors who give career-best performances ''a classic comedy team'' equal to Laurel and Hardy, says exec producer Bill D'Elia in ''An Unlikely Pair,'' the best in a paltry trio of extras. Don't know about that, but they are probably the most dynamic duo currently available for prime-time consumption. And this is how they started.