Channel Changes: Jay Leno And 'Boston Legal'

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TV critic David Bianculli shares his thoughts on the final episode of Boston Legal — and the announcement this week that Jay Leno will begin a new nightly prime-time talk show on NBC next year.

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting and Cable Magazine and TVWorthWatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. Earlier this week, NBC announced that Jay Leno, after he steps down from "The Tonight Show" next year as scheduled, will begin another nightly talk show for NBC, this time in primetime. NBC will give up one-third of its evening schedule to a talk show running Monday through Friday at 10 p.m. eastern.

Why? Because of one adage that in this case turns out to be particularly true: Talk is cheap, really cheap - so cheap that making even reality shows is a lot more expensive; so cheap that NBC's "Today Show" makes more profit for NBC than any other program on its schedule, day or night; so cheap that even if no one watches Leno in primetime who isn't already watching him now in late night, the low ratings his new show will get will be more than offset by the fat profit margins. From a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense. But what is good for business isn't necessarily good for TV. Every primetime hour that Jay Leno occupies is an hour that can't be occupied by a scripted drama, and broadcast television already has precious few of those left. And every time a great one leaves, it's less likely to be replaced.

One of broadcast TV's best shows left us this week when ABC's "Boston Legal" presented its final episode. This David E. Kelley courtroom series bounced effortlessly and constantly from outrageous buffoonery to deadly seriousness. It was the only current scripted show in primetime, week in and week out, to tackle controversial and topical issues. And now it's gone. But it was poetry, pure and simple. And its two-hour finale was one last dazzling stroke of brilliance.

The star of "Boston Legal," James Spader, has won Emmys for his role as attorney Alan Shore, and he's famous for his passionate, lengthy legal arguments. In this scene, Alan and his fellow lawyers have just learned their law firm, Crane Poole & Schmidt, has been taken over by a Chinese consortium. The new owners have decided to fire all the litigation attorneys, but Alan threatens to have them fired instead and calls a meeting to state his case.

On one side of the conference table, there are a dozen or so Chinese men in suits. On the other are Alan and his colleagues, Denny Crane and Shirley Schmidt, played by William Shatner and Candice Bergen, and the rest, who all smile on cue. But it's Alan who does all the talking. He talks for three full minutes. And on this one occasion, to savor one last time how Alan Shore goes from jokes to politics and back again and how great Spader is at delivering these lengthy rants, we're going to hear it all.

(Soundbite of TV show "Boston Legal," December 8, 2008)

Mr. JAMES SPADER: (As Alan Shore) So, where to begin? How about, welcome to Crane Poole & Schmidt, I'm afraid you're all fired? Nothing personal, you seem like fine folk - love the discipline, the 10,000 drummers - but it's not working out. So sorry, out you go, single file, please, move along. Bye-bye.

(Soundbite of claps)

(Soundbite of people murmuring in Chinese)

Mr. LO MING: (As Hyung Lee) Mr. Shore, we now own the firm.

Mr. SPADER: (As Alan Shore) Well, it doesn't much matter, Mister...?

Mr. MING: (As Hyung Lee) Lee.

Mr. SPADER: (As Alan Shore) Lee, yes. This is America, and in America, it all comes down to who the jury likes better, and I don't think an American jury will side with a communist, do you? Juries typically frown on oppressors, even when they're capitalists. So, the idea of China...

Mr. MING: (As Hyung Lee) On what grounds could you possibly prevail?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPADER: (As Alan Shore) Grounds? Who cares about grounds? Cases always come down to who the jury likes better. Did I not just say this? I think I did. So, anyway, meet the group. We're a fine, very likable group, infectious smiles. Smile, group. And best of all, bad for you, we're very good. Did you check out our win-loss record? Good for us, bad for you. More importantly, did you note the kinds of cases that we argue week to week? Typically preposterous, mostly unwinnable on their face, and yet, we win them, whether we have grounds or not. It must be the smiles. Smile, group.

And here we actually do have grounds for you to summarily Schmidt-Cannon(ph) an entire litigation department, a successful one, no less, because, well, hm, because I guess you don't like us. It seems arbitrary, capricious, actionable, winnable, of all things. It doesn't really seem fair, does it, for us to have both the merits and the smiles. Smile, group. What do we do? A wrongful discharge subject to compensatory impunity damages could be lots and lots of money, not to mention, think of the fallout here at the firm. You see, we're not just good litigators; we're popular. Again, could be the smiles, and you firing us, well, that would be a terrible, terrible way to introduce yourselves. I mean, Denny Crane, Shirley Schmidt, you must be joking. I know how the Chinese love to kid - like with the tanks in the square, the monks in Tibet, or daughters - but you could have a mass exodus of lawyers long before we even get to trial, which we will, of course, get to just the same, and when we do, take caution.

Here's a little tip: We Americans love to trade on fear. Ask W; ask Dick; ask Rummy: Fear sells. Fear works. The fear I'll be trading on is China, Communist China, taking our jobs. First over there, then over here, where you once were passive investors, now you want active control. That scares Americans: Active communists, made in China, seeking control. Ooh! Scary. One last thought: We're giant slayers here; it's what we do - be it the United States government, big pharmaceutical, big tobacco, big oil - it never gets old. And just when it seemed we were fresh out of bigs, along came you - China, the poster child for big. Oh! To parade you in front of an American jury - well, here's your out. We'll agree not to fire you, not to sue, on one condition: We stay and we stay in charge. Do what you want with corporate or tax, but in litigation, we run the show: Shirley Schmidt, Denny Crane, Carl Sack, Jerry Espenson, Katie Lloyd, me. It's our party. Stay out of our way; we'll stay out of yours. That is the deal.

BIANCULLI: Almost no one on television talks for three minutes, unless you're Jay Leno doing a monologue. But now that you've heard that, tell me, whose monologue would you rather hear?

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