James Spader’s Alan Shore was fragmented and poorly written. And I loved it.
The eighth and final season of The Practice is the type of season all TV shows fear: retooling. The actors in them know death is imminent. Some actors know it’s much sooner as they never actually make it to that season. It has happened to many shows, from Scrubs to Community, for various reasons. Creator and producer David E. Kelly fired the majority of the main cast without much explanation given on the show (the real reason was budget cutting as that final season was kind of a gift). Even while a story carries from the previous season to the final, everyone else is just gone with not much of a hoot why. But it’s okay. They brought in James Spader.
It shouldn’t be okay. James Spader played Alan Shore, an attorney you know from the very beginning was thrown out of his last law firm for embezzlement. He’s not clean. He’s not a lawyer for the right reasons. He’s not going to play by the book and try to find clever inconsistencies or wait for plot to open up. He’s going to directly manipulate the system to get what he wants. And he’s a protagonist. The Practice was never really about playing by the book and everyone had their turns being a bit dirty but nobody was so proud of it like Alan Shore. Shore was every stereotype about defence attorneys at display.
Shore has got to be one of the most fragmented characters in television because he was always ready to work the way they wanted him to work and he seemed to always get away with it. This of course carried in Boston Legal, the spinoff show they gave him since it was clear Practice was dying (which meant the television losses of Camryn Manheim and Steve Harris, two talents who never really found another home and it’s sad to say) which let them have a little more fun. From the first episode of the final season “We The People” we get a read that Alan Shore is a pervert, a sexual deviant, incredibly disrespectful to women while only moderately disrespectful to men, lacks scruples, lacks ethics and lacks moral fibre to be treated as anything other than a common villain. But they also shoe in him having a heart when it’s necessary to turn things around. The pulls he did with the homeless man made little to no sense to have him commenting constantly on how disgusting homeless people are only for him to do so much for him. It’s supposed to develop the fact that Alan Shore stays sharp at his job by being heartless, when in fact he cares deeply for those around him. This ended up far more on display in Boston Legal than The Practice. That’s the development. It never worked.
So did it make for poor television?
No, in fact. Alan Shore might be an awful character, but James Spader is a brilliant actor. He is smug to an impeccable degree and due to this, his confidence is beyond reproach. Even when he has little to no chance in a situation he goes for the throat. In both The Practice and Boston Legal, he makes you despise him as a rich white man who gets whatever he wants, only to appreciate his voice when it comes time to make closing remarks. He makes incredible sweeping statements and in ways Dylan McDermott was never able to quite always pull off as Bobby Donnell, the original lead of the show, you don’t believe he’s a good person but you believe in everything he says. That’s more powerful than any other lawyer can pull off. It’s more incredible than when Eugene Young shows he knows the law better than any judge. It’s more incredible than when Ellenor Frutt drives a point without a swerve. Alan Shore is an imperfect lawyer, almost to the point of a charlatan. But sometimes the illusionist is greater than the wizard.
Much like that final season, Alan Shore should have never worked. But it did. The Practice sacrificed long standing actors like McDermott and Lara Flynn Boyle and in their stead was just one man who played villains for most of the 1980s and failed to really make it in Hollywood as a fresh faced protagonist. Want a fun experience? See The Watcher sometime, where James Spader has to be a good guy cop and Keanu Reeves has to be a creepy villain. It’s terribly miscast (though it’s a Keanu Reeves film so I tend to give it a lot more passes than most). Fact is, James Spader came in to pretty much be a full season guest star (the season also included fantastic guest turns from Sharon Stone and William Shatner, both picking up awards and Shatner following Spader to Boston Legal) who ripped the law firm from within to give it a death, instead of merely killing off a character.
It’s a tough topic to confront because as I said, Alan Shore is broken. He’s an incredibly broken character that’s poorly written and convinces you to believe things about him that just doesn’t work. It’s like when modern adaptations of old stories try to give villains more light, purpose and motive because “pure evil” just doesn’t seem to exist. Doing this tends to weaken the power of their actions. This happened constantly with Alan Shore, trying to make you sympathize with the human embodiment of a Christian movie’s verison of Lucifer. Yet we still bow to the altar because Spader projects like a Randian hero. That’s pretty much what he is. He’s a captain of industry, only the industry is pretty much his penis.
Spader played a more cartoonish version of Alan Shore in The Office as Robert California. That was in an eighth season as well. Was that just his job? Try to save shows in their eighth season? Either way, he’s since moved onto The Blacklist as well as voicing Ultron in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It was interesting to see Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader confront each other again, as they once did in the movie Less Than Zero. Back there Downey Jr. had created Spader by having a drug addiction he couldn’t pay for. In that, it was Iron Man having a security addiction he couldn’t handle. Okay, that was a stretch.
It’s important to identify that his career path from The Practice on has been playing this broken character because he does it so well. It’s a thing of beauty. Yet it was the movie Secretary, filmed prior to the creation of Alan Shore, where it was best handled. I usually like to call it “What Fifty Shades of Grey failed to attempt to be” despite being made prior, it feels like the finished product of the Alan Shore drafts. Instead of a horny school boy he’s been repressed from his ex-wife. Instead of a loose with the rules lawyer, he’s a lawyer who never feels in control of his situation. He finds that control in his secretary, who had agency unlike the majority of women he encountered in The Practice and Boston Legal.
The true Alan Shore was Mr. Grey (heck, it was the true Christian Grey too). The problem is that television couldn’t figure it out. No matter. Alan Shore was a mess of a character, but it still made that final season of The Practice worth it, and Boston Legal a worthy successor.