By Matt Zoller Seitz, Star-Ledger Staff
David E. Kelley's career is a bag of tricks, but sometimes the tricks still dazzle.
Take tomorrow night's Kelley-scripted "Boston Legal" (10 p.m., Channel 7), in which soon-to-be-recurring guest actor Tom Selleck makes his first charming appearance as Ivan Tiggs, the lothario ex-husband of Candice Bergen's senior partner Shirley Schmidt.
It's as zanily plotted, as tonally inconsistent and as chaotically directed as the Kelley norm. But it's also a reminder that Kelley's bustling, bizarre style can draw you in long enough to show you situations and emotions you never see on broadcast television.
The main plot, which finds Tiggs showing up at the firm and asking Schmidt to be the best man at his wedding, is as wacky as you'd expect. Tiggs' fiancée, Missy Franks (the excellent Meredith Patterson), is a compulsive laugher who won't shut up unless someone barks a tragic phrase like "Bambi's mother got shot," and they're both addicted to Broadway show tunes. But the affection between Tiggs and the two women in his life -- he still carries a torch for Shirley -- is complicated and believable, and so warm that it gets you thinking about how there are no standard-issue "likable" or "normal" people on Kelley's shows, only impulsive, selfish, damaged eccentrics who can't help seeking stability anyway.
This main plot is complemented by an "issue" storyline (another Kelley staple) in which James Spader's Alan Shore defends a man (the great character actor Maury Chaykin) accused of mercy-killing his Alzheimer's stricken wife. As Shore spars in the courtroom with his frequent opposing counsel (Adam Arkin), Kelley articulates the opposing sides of the euthanasia debate with more evenhandedness and sincerity than we're accustomed to hearing (from Kelley, at least). Meanwhile, William Shatner's Denny Crane, who's sweating out fears of an Alzheimer's-driven physical decline, observes the proceedings with the ashen seriousness of a dead man sneaking a peek at his own funeral.
The third plot, another keeper, also plays on the idea of reconciliation: René Auberjonois's Paul Lewiston tries to reconnect with his daughter Rachel (Jayne Brook, another terrific actor; where does Kelley find these people?), who nearly destroyed their family with her drug habit years ago. I won't reveal anything else, except to say that this plot, too, reveals more narrative and emotional layers than you expect going in, and gives Auberjonois the chance to deliver one of the most quietly piercing performances he's ever given.
Throughout, quirkiness is never permitted to eclipse feeling. When Tiggs and his future wife do a karaoke duet of "Something Good" from "The Sound of Music," it's one of the great TV moments of the season, and a reminder that Kelley has always favored a highly theatrical writing and acting style, one where the characters are so quirky and the emotions so intense that everyone always seems close to bursting into song (and sometimes did).
"For here you are standing there loving me, whether or not you should," the couple sings. "So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good." To watch this scene, and another couple of scenes along the same lines, is to understand Kelley on a deeper level. He and his shows are deeply cynical in certain respects, but they often to seem to wish they weren't, and that yearning for long-gone innocence sometimes makes them poignant. Kelley's world is one in which people who believe, deep down, that they don't deserve love still dream of finding it.