Boston Legal could be the perfect drama for our yammering, sound-bitten society: a series in which the lawyers are less focused on truth than on winning and less worried about winning than perfecting the art of razzmatazz. Here's a show in which a young attorney with a loser case is advised to pull a rabbit from under her dress, so she takes an urban legend about a bunny and sells it to the jury (the lesson: believing the unbelievable). The jurors are charmed. Not guilty.
A spin-off of The Practice, Boston needs more of those moments. The series follows ethicsfree attorney Alan Shore (James Spader) to his new digs at a law firm, where he toils alongside top dog Denny ''Dennycrane'' Crane (William Shatner). Both Spader and Shatner won Emmys for their roles during Practice's final season and Shatner, for one, is having a ball playing his technicolor blowhard: In one scene, he eloquently dares an angry client to kill him. Sure, he could just tell the guy that his gun is a useless starter pistol, but then he'd miss out on some prime humbuggery. Having the self-referential Shatner play a man who's become a crafty spoof of himself is another of Boston's meta-amusements.
And yet the bigger Crane gets, the more Shore withers. Spader, with his pretty snake face, has always excelled at projecting a latent meanness, giving Shore a reptilian chill that made him defiantly mercenary on The Practice. But here Shore is so toned down he must remind coworkers that he's ''enormously unlikable.'' And his snipes sound less like wily put-downs than childish outbursts: ''Do you do tongue pushups?''he asks a fast-talking nemesis (Mark Valley). That's down there with ''You're a stupidface'' in the unworthy-rejoinder pile.
If Shore seems a bit off, the show's tone is even more so. In one unwiedly scenario, lawyer Lori (Monica Potter) must defend a cop killer against her will. This prompts her to tell the man: ''I'll be in this for a system I feel an enormous allegiance to, but I will never be in this for you.'' It's a jarring scene, as if the TV's reception went bad and some earnest legal drama flickered in. At other times, this David E. Kelley series veers into Ally McBeal land, as when Crane walks around with a Botox needle in his head for half the show, or when the female lawyers act neurotic in tiny outfits. Unlike past Kelley women played by McBeal's Lucy Liu and Practice's Camryn Manheim, Legal's females are a drab bunch. Potter's Lori is especially awful, forcing an underling (Rhona Mitra) to flirt with a client... because Lori's not hot enough. (Gee, insecure and smarmy!)
Despite these weaknesses, there's hope. In recent episodes, watching Shore ''handle'' his relationships the way he would a nettlesome client has been nasty fun. One bit promisingly highlighted his particular strain of artifice: He talked his colleague/lover Sally (Lake Bell) into wooing a nerdy witness in order to get personal details that would discredit him. Manipulation on manipulation? Betrayal on betrayal? Check and check. Legal is simply at its best when it's most disingenuous.