Thursday, February 17, 2005


Boston Legal is a prime example of the World According to Hollywood--even more reflective of the industry’s mindset than the show’s sleazy domestic partner, Desperate Housewives. At least the latter program acknowledges the existence of children.

By contrast, the Shatner-Spader-Bergman production proceeds with a cast devoid of marital devotion. As was true on Captain Kirk’s starship, sons, daughters, wives and husbands are virtually absent from the scene. Only alien civilizations and criminal defendants, it seems, exhibit the bonding patterns and rituals that once characterized planet Earth.

In lieu of characters with familial attachments, we are given promiscuous professionals--rutting barristers whose personal standards of deportment are as low as their political ideals are high. What matters in this forensic free-for-all is not what happens, as Barbara Bush noted, "in your house," but what happens in the courthouse. James Spader is the show’s number one amoralist--pursuing every willing skirt in the workplace, living in a hotel suite, exhibiting contempt for traditional standards of civility, yet heroically advancing any political cause that can be stuffed into his hyperactive legal briefs.

One wonders what familial carts all these legal superstars fell off of. Were they raised by wolves--or on alien planets and transported, Star Trek style, to the home of the bean and the cod? Did they reach puberty under the care of Father Flanagan’s abusive successor and then bolt to the big city--a scenario that would explain their visceral aversion to Catholicism?

What is clear on Boston Legal is that neither promiscuity nor civility have anything to do with morality--nor, for that matter, do intact families or children raised by dedicated parents. Instead, what matters is one’s position on political issues--the environment, the FDA, homosexual relationships, civil rights, big business, and so on. This way of ordering things has the benefit of excluding from evidence all those habits that would dispose the public to look unfavorably on the Hollywood set--to render negative judgments on folks whose not-so-private lives regularly display all the moral dignity of drug traffickers.

What counts in this Brave New World is not how parents raise their children but whether one supports "reproductive (i.e. non-reproductive) rights." Marriage isn’t considered that important--unless it concerns the legal standing of partners biologically incapable of producing a child. Nor is civility a trait that requires vigorous defense, since all that really matters is what transpires under judicial auspices.

The philosophers Andrew Oldenquist and Daniel Callahan have noted that law inevitably fills the breach created by a crumbling social order. Do’s and don’ts increasingly become functions of legal decree and less matters of cultural stigma. A corollary to this shift in ethical emphasis is the tendency to view the Supreme Court as a deus ex machina--an institution whose statutory authority keeps things from falling apart while putting its stamp of approval on acts that, absent such endorsement, would generate debilitating pangs of conscience. In such a society it’s easier to derive a sense of rectitude from the presumed virtuosity of legal arguments than from personal character or time devoted to raising one’s offspring.

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