Thursday, December 01, 2005


"If individuals be not influenced by moral principles; it is in vain to look for public virtue." --James Madison

James Madison never met James Spader. More precisely, he never met Spader’s metrosexual character, Alan Shore—the silver-tongued lawyer from ABC’s “Boston Legal” who almost makes Phil Donahue look macho. Shore is the political mouthpiece of writer-producer David Kelley. As such, he performs the dramatic task of bashing the Bush Administration and corporate villains via eccentric and riveting courtroom soliloquies. One week the target is farm-spawned salmon, the next week the war in Iraq, and regularly the apocalyptic effects of global warming.

The utter rectitude of Shore’s public causes are never in doubt. Any fool can see where the truth lies and can see that opposing counsel represents the forces of greed and stupidity. This clarity, of course, arises from the fact that a single advocate creates all the arguments.

Accordingly, Shore comes off as Mr. Smith, Atticus Finch, and Oliver Stone’s Jim Garrison all rolled into one. Indeed, in Kelley’s managed courtroom, if Shore ever got in a legal skir­mish over Mother Teresa’s legacy, the deceased nun would come off looking like a money-hustling tart whose atavistic faith was the bane of Calcutta. (Perhaps religiophobe Christopher Hitchens could be a script consultant for that episode.)

But what of Alan Shore the individual? What kind of person is he?

The answer is that Spader’s character is a skirt-chasing boor whose hyperactive legal briefs are constantly getting him in Dutch with associates—a man whose disdain for the proprieties of everyday life matches his inability to establish enduring relationships. This emotional transience was illustrated in one episode by Shore’s taking up “permanent” residence in a hotel. Put bluntly, Alan Shore is Bill Clinton without the political veneer.

This utter disjuncture between the public and private spheres of a single life would puzzle Madison, who saw public virtue as an outgrowth of personal moral rectitude—the former being impossible without the latter. Yet the separation of individual character and public policy stands at the heart of David Kelley’s dramatic agitprop.

Far from being ignored, personal morality is ridiculed in Kelley’s legal fantasyland where ministers come off as hypocritical lechers and their congregations consist of busybodies, homicidal prudes, or deacons who have sexual relations with cows. This is a convenient strategy since it makes the foibles of Kelley’s legal hero seem trivial by comparison. Alan Shore’s decadence is at least sincere and above board.

It should come as no surprise that this schizophrenic portrait mirrors the way Tinseltown itself touts political dogma over personal rectitude. As is the case with their ideological stand ins at the law firm of Crane, Poole, and Schmidt, political correct­ness provides a convenient form of absolution for self-indulgence. Instead of engaging in the rigors of penance and parenthood, all it takes to boost one’s moral standing is the perpetual public recitation of a PC rosary.

It’s a pleasant script, but it doesn’t comport with the reality Madison described. Salvation doesn’t come from above—from Washington. Nor will enlightened social policies emerge from debauched individuals who ridicule the very notion of personal virtue. A staged world where public welfare is divorced from private rectitude bears as much likeness to the actual world as Boston Legal does to the true practice of law.

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