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"The Shield," Boston Legal" Ended Beautifully -- But for TV Drama, What's Next?
December 11, 2008  | By David Bianculli

First the FX drama The Shield ended, perfectly. Then, two weeks later, the ABC comedy-drama Boston Legal ended, perfectly. And that same day, NBC announced, far from perfectly, it would replace all weekday 10 p.m. ET programming with a new Jay Leno talk show These three events may seem independent of one another -- but in the larger view, they're so closely related, they're absolutely interlocked.

For half a century, broadcast TV owned the hour-long drama form. Absolutely monopolized it, except for rare and minor exceptions. Then, in 1997, HBO experimented with Oz, then two years later with The Sopranos, and the world changed. Premium cable could beat the networks at their own game -- and in 2002, FX proved, with the introduction of The Shield, that basic cable could, as well.


Boston Legal, ABC's spinoff of The Practice, began in 2004, and ended Monday with a brilliant final episode. It included rants about Chinese policy and pharmaceutical company malfeasance, and one last appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court, and even a double wedding, involving four of the law firm's attorneys -- three of which were men.

And it ended, of course, with William Shatner's Denny Crane and James Spader's Alan Shore on the balcony, sharing a wedding-night dance. Totally appropriate, completely satisfying.


Two weeks ago, when The Shield ended, it, too served up a whopper of a finale. The first major jolt came when Shane, the fugitive cop realizing he was cornered, not only took his own lives, but the lives of his beloved wife and child, by poisoning them and posing them on the motel bed with, respectively, a bouquet of flowers and a favorite toy.


So were the long, lingering closeups of the tortured eyes of Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey (above) as his past misdeeds caught up to him -- and to that unexpected, twisted final twist that had Vic chained to a different type of prison hell: assigned to menial tasks in a cubicle, with no freedom, no power and no friends or family.

The success of The Shield, on basic cable, led to everything from The Closer and Mad Men to Damages and Breaking Bad. The one-hour drama, on cable, is alive and well. But on broadcast TV, it's fighting for life, and it's not doing well.

shield-finale-cubicle-hell.jpgABC chose not to support Pushing Daisies. Now that Boston Legal is gone, the number of broadcast TV series that deal in prime time with topical issues is, let's see, zero. And with NBC removing, in essence, five time slots per week that could have gone to drama series development, it's slashing the future of network TV drama, at least at NBC.

When ER began in 1994, it immediately dominated its time slot and gave NBC more than a decade of Must-See TV on Thursday nights. When ER ends in May, after a proud 14-year run, replacing it will be difficult... but NBC isn't even going to try. Instead, its time slot will go to Jay Leno.

And with all due respect, if there's one thing Jay Leno isn't, it's must-see TV. If audiences want quality drama -- and they do -- where will they go? The same place they're going in increasing numbers anyway: to cable.




giggles said:

Yes, the recession (no, "depression," if you watch all of those ridiculous talking heads filling up all of those ridiculous news channels) has hit television too. I bet GE can no longer afford to pay decent people to write, act and produce decent television..... Now only those folks who can afford to pay for cable will be able to watch decent, intelligent, topical tee-vee. It's a slippery slope and we are sliding down fast....

Comment posted on December 11, 2008 12:02 PM

Neil said:

The NBC-Leno deal removes not only ER's hour, but two Law & Order hours on Tuesday and Wednesday. Doesn't NBC-Universal also own the Dick Wolf production company? What happens there? This move would seem to kill off the franchise, or at minimum relegate any new episodes to basic cable. Though that already happened with L&O:Criminal Intent, so I guess it's not a huge leap for the other two shows to go that route.

This problem runs even deeper. Ignoring Saturdays -- just like the networks already do -- ABC already uses one of the nights to run their news magazine 20-20, and CBS runs procedurals every night in that late hour. And of course Fox, perhaps presciently, never bothered to compete in that hour at all, just turning it over to their affiliates for local newscasts or syndicated fare.

It wouldn't surprise me to see ABC move Nightline into the 10-11 hour in a year or two, and move Kimmel into the 11:35 slot, assuming they can't land a bigger name. (Who, though?) This would kill off 20-20, which would, at this point, be no great loss.

As for the hourlong, adult-themed, non-procedural drama on broadcast network TV, that late hour is about to be gone, and the genre itself is effectively on its deathbed.

Comment posted on December 11, 2008 2:07 PM

Jim said:

I have mixed emotions about the "Boston Legal" finale. For one thing, I hold a grievance that in the four series that David Kelley has based in Boston, none of them has had a recurring character with a Boston accent (and I can't recall any incidental characters with a Boston accent, either) though they had a recurring character with a Brooklyn accent in "The Practice."

Also, in the finale, I thought the China bashing was borderline racist. And how did the gang, with their Boston judge in tow, fly to what apparently was British Columbia in an afternoon to get married (I won't even get into by whom) and get back to Boston that same night? I suppose niggling over continuity lapses is a mug's game, but it reinforces my grievances. Other than that, I liked the show.

Comment posted on December 11, 2008 2:35 PM

Bernie said:

It looks like this is where NBC is heading: http://www.borowitzreport.com/article.aspx?ID=6968 (As tongue-in-cheek stories go, this one's pretty good. -- David B.)

Comment posted on December 11, 2008 4:21 PM

Stuart Arnott said:

Hi David

I'm a huge Boston Legal, and have always thought that the show could do no wrong. However, you're an intelligent man, did you seriously not think that the final episode (mostly the first half) was extremely racist? My wife and I (I'm British, wife American, both living in the UK) kept staring at each other with our jaws dropped in disbelief at the horrid racist bile pouring out of everyone's mouths. The representation of the Chinese people as a homogenous, non-English speaking, anti-American people was appalling. The scene where they all called Shirley a bitch was nasty beyond belief. (Even South Park recently pointed out the anti-Chinese attitude pervading American society). On a recent trip to New York we went to a comedy club and were bombarded with Anti Chinese, Indian and Korean "jokes" that would have started a riot in London. This kind of intolerance would not be allowed on television in the UK. What's going on David? Why are racial minorities fair game all of a sudden? We were very disappointed in everyone involved in this show, and I'm disappointed at you for not even noticing... (I actually took Alan Shore's rant as a threat of fear, playing off the gullibility of the American people, rather than any actual display of intolerance. But maybe, in terms of comedy, I'm too forgiving in certain contexts. I appreciate your point. -- David B.)


Comment posted on December 15, 2008 10:39 AM

tayriley said:

i fully agree with what stu stated. i also gawked at the full-on racism in the final episodes of boston legal. as a show that has fought all the horrible sides of humanity in america, i was absolutely shocked that it had its protagonists suddenly turn into the same ugly americans they spent 5 years fighting against.
the chinese people make up more of the population of the world than any other. it shouldn't be a surprise that there would be chinese businesses that have money to buy a law firm. it shouldn't be automatically assumed that they would be connected to the chinese government or share their ideals.
all i can think is that america has to be anti-china because it is a working system and that fact threatens other systems. 'if you've proved your way works, then people might think my way isn't the best way.' HOW FREE IS THAT? the fear of other systems and thoughts?? it is an example of prejudice to the highest degree.

Comment posted on August 9, 2010 3:33 AM
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