Today's entry, in which I make a realization about the full implications of Chicago's BYOB policy and diagnose a major problem of American culture, and propose Boston Legal as the remedy.
BYOB You always perfect something once you no longer do it. I'm leaving Chicago in two weeks, and I just figured this out. Chicago has a great Bring Your Own Bottle restaurant scene, but it wasn't until last week that I understand it. For years BYOB was an excuse to make a (usually lame) dinner date cheaper. Boring conversations with someone you barely know over dinner – about the worst possible way of getting to know someone – were made more sensible by not having to purchase a $50 bottle of wine with your meal.
That's worthwhile, to a degree. But it misses the genius. A friend and I were eating the works of the rotisserie savants over at Feed, when someone he knew entered. That person pulled out a plastic bag filled with Budweiser and said: "Do you guys want a beer?" My mind immediately was hit with a flashbolt – you mean all those years of eating at small BYOB taco places, rib shacks, and chicken huts and I could have been bringing beer to drink? Oh my god.
To test this theory we went to what might be the best rib place in Chicago, Honey 1's BBQ, a restaurant that I am shamed to say I have thought: "Why is that BYOB? You wouldn't bring a bottle of wine there", carrying a plastic bag filled with cans of Old Style. Two of us, bag filled with Old Style. Sure enough, he took our order (tips, my god the tips there), looked at our closed bag, and winked "I see you guys have your own drinks."
We then spent the next two hours eating ribs and drinking beer. Total price of beer consumed: $3.49. God bless you Mayor Daley.
Culture I think one of the major problems with mass American culture is that so much energy is put into presenting the professional class doing a great job of itself. How many television shows or movies can you name where doctors are brilliant and not at all bound by time or money, lawyers ethical and dedicated to their client no matter what, and so on with teachers, journalists, etc. I can't tell if this is the result of : trying to reassure a country that has handed off functional control of their lives to 10% of the population that they have made a wise choice; hitting that sweet spot of loving pratical knowledge existing in the pursuit of authority, respect, money and power (of which the characters always implicitly have or deserve); or just a benign career day for a country of immigrants where there is no inherited trade culture.
(Before I move on from this, I'll disclose my opinions of the various subgenres. I think the Journalists Speak Truth to Power is the most boring; I have a soft spot for Doctors Spend Most of Their Time Not Haggling With HMOs genre – so many of my friends ran off to medical school after the first two seasons of ER. I feel bad for people who bought into the Lawyers as justice-seekers – man are they up for a rude awakening. And I always think the Teacher Motivates Inner-City Schoolchildren subgenre is the most absurd, because it usually plays out this odd middle-class suburban fantasy of The Problem As Lazy Teachers, and if only someone would come in and really teach calculus to the children, with passion and dedication, all the problems would melt away. Being a math kid, the idea that some staple of Calc AB like the chain rule would be all that is needed to get kids to believe in themselves, and that only would overcome extreme poverty, is so silly only people in Naperville could believe it. I love that post No Child Left Behind it doesn't even have to be a subject that's taught – just believing in kids enough to teach them dancing will be enough.)
Boston Legal Which brings me to Boston Legal, Season 2. What a wonderful show. There is absolutely no pretense that lawyers are serious creatures, seekers of truth and justice. And they do it without being brutal about it – without showing what life would actually be like at the top firm of Boston, ie 80 hour weeks helping company A sue company B (they do hint at it with a wonderful subplot about the sandwich lady being more respected than a new associate). Instead the lawyers are treated as they are – hired guns. The camera does weird things when the characters enter rooms and courthouses – it's an odd blend of Reservoir Dogs and Sergio Leone, gangsters and cowboys.
A lot has been made of the shows left-leaning politics, and perhaps it is a big deal for network television. But for me the glee of the show comes down to three things. One is that the casework is almost never stuff a large corporation would actually handle. Michael McKean sleeps with a cow and the top firm helps his divorce case. Ed Bagley Jr. sleeps with hookers and the top firm handles the charge. Alberto Gonzalez (offcamera, of course), needs the best lawyer in the country to defend the Department of Justice (the next day, incidentally) and calls William Shatner. James Spader spends a large number of episodes defending his various secretaries from criminal charges or doing public aid work. It is so not at all how big firm life would go it is a wonder to watch.
The second is that while the show leans left, it's really about power – and who has it. A big subplot in Season 2 is that William Shatner started going around shooting people (just the fact that I can write such a statement…). The homeless, defendants, his therapist. All shot. And Shatner always walks in a way that is not at all unconvincing. Spader gets an odd fellow off from multiple murders he committed in different episodes. Another lawyers gets away with chopping the fingers off a priest. The lawyers are always defending the most questionable of cases and clients, and almost-always winning from bringing the better minds, money, and hired guns to the table.
power, and road trips
But the politics and law stuff really misses the third and best part of the show – male bonding. Season 2 of Boston Legal, and there is no other way to put it, has been about Shatner and Spader going on road trips together. To get over heartaches or neurological disorders or being "in heat" – they have spent a large part of the show not being lawyers but instead guys traveling to Canada, LA, spas, etc. These scenes, as well as any other number that involves flamingos and ballroom dancing and them defending each other in a court of law, are what gives the show its real strength and heart. And not enough can be said about these characters. James Spader plays a weird amalgamation of all his previous stock characters: creepy, anti-social with a hint (or not just a hint) of sexual deviancy (Secretary, Crash, Mannequin), while William Shatner plays Shanter!, a weird hyped-up insane (or is it mad-cow?) version of his own celebrity persona.
And I said it before, and I'll say it again, those final scenes on the balcony are worth re-watching a few times. It ties everything together in a nice touch without ever feeling trite. To next season, gentlemen.