Flow Favorites: Bromance and the Boys of Boston Legal
Kelli Marshall / University of Toledo
Every few years, Flow’s editors select our favorite columns from the last few volumes. We’ve added special introductions and included the original comments to the piece below. Enjoy!
Co-coordinating Editor Colin Tait:
In her astute analysis of David E. Kelly’s lawyer show Boston Legal, Kelli Marshall nails the ambivalent and complicated love story between the show’s male leads, Denny Crane (William Shatner) and Alan Shore (James Spader). Though framed under the recent (and somewhat problematic) popular term “bromance,” Marshall accounts for some of the more sophisticated pleasures of watching mature heterosexual men expressing their love for one another, as well as its bizarre presence within contemporary mainstream television. Since Boston Legal’s audience is obviously older – on ABC during primetime, in the lawyer, cops and docs genre, and featuring protagonists in their 50s – the show could feasibly also present a litmus test which presents far more liberal values than TV is typically given credit for, as well as a worthy subject for further scrutiny, as argued in Marshall’s succinct provocation.
The television show, Boston Legal (David E. Kelley, 2004-2008) is unusual to say the least. While holding a wooden cigarette, a lawyer sporadically pops, purrs, and stomps as he argues cases, another attorney frequently passes gas and allegedly suffers from Mad Cow disease (i.e., Alzheimer’s), the camera constantly fetishizes hands and favors staccato-like zooms, and characters regularly break the fourth wall as they reference Boston Legal’s own time slot on ABC.1 But perhaps the most atypical feature of the primetime courtroom drama/comedy is its persistent exploration of homosociality as seen through the physically and verbally demonstrative friendship of gregarious lawyer Alan Shore (James Spader) and eccentric attorney Denny Crane (William Shatner).
Unlike most heterosexual male friendships depicted onscreen, Alan and Denny hold hands, openly affirm their love for each other, and sleep over at one another’s house, at times in the same bed. At one point, Denny even forgoes marriage with a sassy cattle-driver (Christine Ebersole) because he cannot fathom moving to a ranch in Montana without Alan (4.18). While the two male attorneys share this unconventional bond, they are also portrayed — like most onscreen “bromantic” couples — as undeniably, perhaps exaggeratedly, heterosexual. For instance, both Alan and Denny successfully bed and overtly objectify women, fixate on their penises, and boast about their illustrious standings in the courtroom. Also representing conventional machismo, Denny carries guns, some loaded with bullets and others with paint balls; nonetheless, he fires both at people and is usually victorious in his aim. Moreover, at the end of virtually every one of Boston Legal’s 100 episodes, Alan and Denny congregate on the balcony of Denny’s office at the law firm of Crane, Poole, and Schmidt to smoke cigars, drink scotch, and discuss their day. This recurring scene is arguably the most intriguing of the show as it is here, amidst noticeably phallic cigars and sometimes the discussion of women, that most of the couple’s uninhibited and multifaceted affection for each other is displayed. See clip below.
There are several reasons to single out Boston Legal among the television shows and films currently (or recently) showcasing homosociality. First, unlike virtually all of the other existing representations of strong male-male relationships (e.g., How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, Wedding Crashers, Superbad, Role Models), Boston Legal is not purely comedic. As a result, it offers a seriousness and sincerity in tone that other onscreen bromances do not — or, arguably, cannot because industry executives fear losing their (white, heterosexual male) audiences. Second, where most contemporary representations of homosociality are limited to teenage boys and young men in their twenties and early thirties, Boston Legal’s Alan and Denny are roughly 50 and 70. Consequently, the aspirations and everyday dilemmas of the two differ drastically from those of their younger counterparts. Third, virtually no other fictional network characters communicate their friendship more articulately or regularly than Alan and Denny. In fact, I would argue alongside Entertainment Weekly that these two are “the most affectionate straight men on TV [and/or film]”2
Here’s where the problem lies though. To begin with, it’s difficult to situate Alan and Denny’s friendship in this growing list of relatively juvenile sitcoms and superficial animal comedies. Yes, Boston Legal— which the creator once called “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest set in a law firm” — features inane moments (e.g., Denny and Alan donning flamingo costumes, engaging in paintball fights, being tied together in bed, joining the Coast Guard, etc.). But the authenticity and gravitas of Alan’s and Denny’s relationship — which significantly, is the very last image the viewer sees every week in the balcony scenes — often supersedes the sight gags and outlandish behavior.
Also problematic, it’s hard to deconstruct the show’s male bond based on the sociological reasons that the bromance has apparently reemerged with such force: financial pressures (i.e., roommates are a more sensible option in this economy), the delay of marriage to age 27 (premarital sex and cohabitation are more accepted), an increase in higher education, and a rise in public displays of male affection/emotion.3 After all, with the exception of the fourth reason, none of these things really applies to a late-in-life bromance such as Alan’s and Denny’s.
Finally, it’s difficult to situate Boston Legal alongside Scrubs, Old School, Superbad, and Role Models, for example, because its bromance doesn’t necessarily fit the theoretical reasons that the bromance has resurfaced: (a) the heterosexual male’s supposed anxiety about society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality, and (b) his reservations about progressive women and their sexuality. An unapologetically liberal show, Boston Legal, unlike Judd Apatow’s films and the like, largely refrains from “gay jokes” and homophobic comments. And if such words are uttered (usually by staunch Republican, Denny Crane), they are shot down almost immediately by Alan or the other characters on the show. Regarding women in bromances, according to Joseph Aisenberg, they represent an unknowable threat to the men’s group cohesion”; this is why we often see in these films/shows, “screeching bitches, bosomy sluts, oversexed grandmas, or self-obsessed professionals.”4 But again, like the other conventions and explanations cited above, this does not necessarily hold true throughout Boston Legal. In fact, one of the biggest threats to Alan’s and Denny’s relationship was not a woman but another male partner in the law firm (see clip below).
In his autobiography, William Shatner writes that this was “the most intense balcony scene” in the show’s five seasons. “It was a very fragile moment,” Shatner recalls. “I had to express the emotions of a woman who had caught the man she loved cheating on her—but in a very nonsexual way. If I went too far it became broad comedy; if I was too intense it became anger rather than hurt.” Finally, he remembers, “When people talk to me about Boston Legal, this is the [episode] they often cite. More than any other moment, this is the balcony scene that most accurately describes their relationship.”5 This is an understandable reaction as these are themes that consistently define Alan and Denny: they cherish time together, express their love easily and openly, acknowledge jealousy and fidelity as a factor in their bond, and remind us that what they have (which most onscreen men don’t or are afraid to) is irreplaceable. And this is why, for loyal Boston Legal viewers, it wasn’t much of a surprise when the two married in the series finale.
So what does this mean? Where does (or did) Boston Legal fit among this wave of bromances? Or can it? Some critics don’t think it can; they maintain, for example, “None of [the other bromances] hold a candle to the boys of Boston Legal.”6 I agree; this one is seemingly in a league of its own, especially when we consider the show’s messages about male-male relationships. That is, age, admiration, and unconditional love produce an intimate, extraordinary friendship in which homophobic jokes and bitchy women play little part. As well, the show ultimately suggests, unlike The Hangover or I Love You, Man, that marriage may satisfy several emotions and purposes: sexual and romantic (Candice Bergen’s Shirley and John Larroquette’s Carl marry alongside Denny and Alan), but also spiritual, financial, and medical. Viewers will notice, for instance (in the above clip), that affection is considered first in Denny’s proposal: “Take my hand,” he offers, then “Take my money.” Indeed, these messages are a far cry from the immature ones featured in Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall — onscreen representations of homosociality that merely mask underlying and unfounded anxieties about sex, sexuality, and ultimately, humanity.
Hannah Hamad said:
I think you have demonstrated that Boston Legal was quite prescient in its anticipation of the subsequent glut of more mainstream popular culture that would foreground non-sexual closeness between men, albeit in less nuanced and forward thinking ways than you are suggesting Boston Legal does. It’s also great to see the term bromance being conceptualised with intellectual and critical rigour, given the extent to which it is bandied around in the realm of popular commentary, and the ease with which said commentators now apply it to male friendships depicted across the media spectrum. Also, I’m not sure it’s possible to pin down the moment that term rose to discursive prominence, but is it the case that you are applying the term retrospectively, and that Boston Legal predates widespread use of the term? If so, we might almost understand it to be an ur-text for this trope.
February 12th, 2011 at 6:26 pm
Kelli Marshall said:
Hi, Hannah — thanks for reading and commenting! May I first admit that I HATE the word bromance? =) But since it is so “bandied around,” as you point out, I figured I ought to use it. I first recall hearing/reading the word bromance shortly after The 40-Year-Old Virgin received such critical and financial success. That would’ve been sometime after the summer of 2006. If I remember correctly, Alan and Denny’s relationship didn’t really move into “bromance” territory — at least not with such full force — until the third season of Boston Legal, which would’ve been about the same time, 2006-07. So I’m not sure I’m applying the term (too) retrospectively, if that makes sense. Thanks again!
February 12th, 2011 at 6:26 pm
R. Colin Tait said:
I’ve been meaning to comment on this article for some time, as my in-laws are huge fans of the show and have been begging me to write about it. I feel like you’ve hit a lot of the key points here, but one thing that really strikes me about the show is how successful it is in translating the idea of male love to an older generation of largely genre-based tv watchers. As you’ve mentioned, and as the narrative unfolds, it seems to me that a much more sophisticated depiction of male love occurs onscreen, which (to my mind) is completely understandable a) given Alan and Denny’s friendship, but b) the depth of their genuine love for one another. What I find interesting about the whole Bromance phenomenon (yuck!) is that it seems to have opened up a previously untapped arena for men to express themselves in genuine terms, beyond the fear of possible repercussions in the social sphere as to their sexual identity. The sudden explosions of these declarations (ranging through Superbad to Step-Brothers, to Abed and Troy on Community) strikes me as a pretty positive sign of the burgeoning realization that men are finally able to express their love for their “boy-friends,” in the same sense that women have “girl-friends”, even if they do have to add “man” to the end of these declarations. I think that this accounts for the awkwardness and the wide-ranging popularity. I think that it also speaks to the wide-spread acceptance of such an idea, with Boston Legal – a show that is obviously skewed older, not younger – as indicative of perhaps where we are in terms of “public morality” regarding the issues of gender, sexuality, tolerance and above all, love.
Thanks for writing!
February 13th, 2011 at 3:57 am
Kelli Marshall said:
Hi, Colin. Thanks for reading and commenting! “…how successful it is in translating the idea of male love to an older generation of largely genre-based tv watchers.” – I find this fascinating as well and wonder if the only way that film/TV is willing to express a genuine “bromance” (yes, yuck!) is via older characters like Alan and Denny. I can think of NO other fictional characters under 40 who compare. Yes, Community’s Abed and Troy are heading in that direction, but still, their affection for each other is mostly comedic/silly. In other discussions on this subject, people have cited House and Wilson, but that relationship, while interesting to watch, is based primarily on jokes, lies, and jealousy — quite different from Alan and Denny’s, don’t you think? “The sudden explosions of these declarations (ranging through Superbad to Step-Brothers, to Abed and Troy on Community) strikes me as a pretty positive sign of the burgeoning realization that men are finally able to express their love for their “boy-friends[…]“ – You say “finally” here, as though some sort of ban has been lifted. =)
Again, thanks for taking the time to comment!
February 15th, 2011 at 10:52 am
Vince B. said:
First, I’m thrilled that someone is actually writing about “Boston Legal.” I think it was a criminally overlooked (though hardly perfect) show for the five years it was on the air, and I was quite saddened when it came to an end. However, I agree that they could not have found a more perfect ending for it. This is a wonderful examination of the Denny/Alan relationship, and I agree that it does not “fit among this wave of bromances.” You write that a prime cause of this reemergence is that people are waiting longer to get married. I don’t disagree with that particular point, but I don’t think that it lacks a connection to the situation of Alan and Denny. The two of them are well past 27, but neither of them have found a spouse or lover to stay with, nor do they have children. I would argue that that does indeed drive the homosocial bond between these two men. A lack of youth does not assume that one has settled down. The two of them may not have settled with their ideal women, but they do not suspend the search for the duration of the series. Denny is engaged to be married for half of a season, and always has his unrequited love for Candice Bergen’s character. Alan deals with the embers of numerous love affairs, current and failed. And through all the near-successes and eventual failures, the two men congregate on the balcony and ultimately realize that at the end of the day (literally and figuratively) all they have are each other. In one of the clips you cite, Denny says that he finds it silly that jealousy or fidelity are reserved for romance. What I find silly is the idea that a close relationship between men is reserved for the young and financially strapped. What always appealed to me the most about the Alan/Denny relationship is that their closeness was not born out of a threat to their sexuality or gender identity, a need to pool finances, or that they were of a similar age. Their closeness is the result of two disparate journeys that two very different men have taken through their lives to wind up with each other. Their relationship, fraught with disagreements and jealousies, is a generally pure one born out of choice and love, not a reactionary one to serve a means or assert a male identity. (The being said, their marriage to preserve Denny’s property and their intractably sexist behavior do not keep it wholly free of a slightly reactionary bent.) Their relationship is what kept me coming back every week. And it was a wonderful thing that I am happy to see people write about and I only wish more people had been exposed to.
March 7th, 2011 at 12:12 pm
Kelli Marshall said:
Always glad to meet a fellow fan of BL! The two of them are well past 27, but neither of them have found a spouse or lover to stay with, nor do they have children. I would argue that that does indeed drive the homosocial bond between these two men. A lack of youth does not assume that one has settled down. – This is an excellent point you’ve made, and I appreciate your citing it here. What I find silly is the idea that a close relationship between men is reserved for the young and financially strapped. What always appealed to me the most about the Alan/Denny relationship is that their closeness was not born out of a threat to their sexuality or gender identity, a need to pool finances, or that they were of a similar age. – Agree 100%. This is yet another reason I find BL so darn intriguing in general. I love its focus on “mature” (well, that law firm isn’t always mature, is it?!) characters and their lives. People who’ve lived, survived, grown, failed, thrived, etc. are (to me) FAR more interesting and complicated than the kids in Superbad or the twenty-somethings in Pineapple Express and I Love You, Man, for instance. This is the same reason I appreciate films like Something’s Gotta Give and On Golden Pond. Thanks again for taking the time to comment!
March 9th, 2011 at 9:09 am
Please feel free to comment.NOTES
- Most of Boston Legal’s episodes include meta-references. For example, Alan once crosses paths with Denny, remarking, ” Ah, there you are, Denny. I’ve hardly seen you this episode.” Similarly, in another episode, Denny tells Carl Sack (John Larroquette), “We need to bond. Hell man, this is our last season.” Likewise, in one of the final episodes, as the firm is going bankrupt, Alan confides to Denny, “Hell, you’ll probably outlive us all. We’ll be dead and buried and you’ll still be kicking, doing Priceline commericals.” (William Shatner, of course, is a spokesperson for Priceline.) A longer list may be Boston Legal’s Star Trek references. [↩]
- Mandi Bierly. “Boston Legal: Why I’ll miss it.” Entertainment Weekly December 8, 2008. [↩]
- Katherine Bindley. “Here’s to the ‘Bromance’ – straight men embracing close friendships.” Columbia News Service. March 18, 2008. [↩]
- Joseph Aisenberg. “Here come the Bromides – Living in the Era of the Bromantic Comedy.” Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 65, August 2009. [↩]
- William Shatner. “Up Till Now: The Autobiography.” St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2008.” [↩]
- Mary McNamara. “Boston Legal: the last dance“. Los Angeles Times. December 9, 2008. [↩]