Case is closed for 'Boston Legal'

David E. Kelley's trenchant, hilarious take on the modern legal system, 'Boston Legal,' ends its run.

As the gavel comes down on 20th Century Fox TV's "Boston Legal" with Monday's two-hour series capper, the show's esteemed creator and executive producer David E. Kelley would love to feel a measure of closure and contentment, understanding that ABC agreed to a 13-episode fifth season to permit him the chance to go out in proper form.

But he can't. Because leaving the air right now was not his idea.

"An argument could be made for us to continue," Kelley says. "Our demographics aren't so great, but our numbers have been pretty solid. It commanded a pretty decent ad rate. But this isn't a show that I think ABC was ever truly excited about. They don't own it, and I'm sure they prefer to invest in their own product and get a piece of the package."

Given those factors, he says, the run of four years, four and a half seasons, and 101 episodes (tonight's two-hour finale counts as two) highlighting the lives, loves and wacky times inside the high-priced law firm of Crane Poole & Schmidt was surprising enough.

"It was an acquired taste from the start," Kelley says. "If you tuned in (for) a single episode and looked at it in a vacuum, you'd wonder what planet they were coming from and probably move on.

"But more than any show I've ever done, it had probably the most devout following," he continues. "I've had series that had higher ratings and were liked by more people, but never one that was as loved."

That's saying something for a onetime lawyer who has reigned for two decades as one of the most successful and decorated writers and producers in television history, one whose legal series resume includes the hits "L.A. Law," "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," and also boasts the dramas "Picket Fences," "Chicago Hope" and "Boston Public."

"Boston Legal" represents Kelley's fifth show to surpass 100 episodes, all of them achieved while under exclusive contract to 20th TV. But as he signed a lucrative multiyear deal with Warner Bros. TV in May, the curtain also comes down tonight for good on Kelley's prolific and storied 22-year association with the studio.

Note 20th Century Fox TV co-chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman in a joint statement: "We have worked at this company for 16 and 18 years, respectively, and this will be the first without David Kelley. That does indeed make us sad. Our walls are covered with memorable images from his shows, which serve as a daily reminder of his brilliance and extraordinary talent as a creator and sharp observer of human beings."

And so "Boston Legal" bids primetime adieu, having debuted on Oct. 3, 2004, as a spinoff of ABC's "The Practice," one with the stated goal of being more irreverent and quirkier than its comparatively traditional predecessor. It has won five Emmys (with another year of eligibility still to come), two by lead James Spader and one by William Shatner (who also copped a Golden Globe).

A true hybrid of comedy and drama, the series embodied Kelley's offbeat sensibility in telling the personal and professional stories of high-maintenance attorneys. The cast also included

Candice Bergen, who joined in Season 2 as senior partner Shirley Schmidt, and John Larroquette, who came on in Season 4. Over the years, "Legal's" all-star guest cast has included Michael J. Fox, Heather Locklear, Shelley Long, Tom Selleck, Carl Reiner and Larry Miller.

Kelley is right -- the show never was a huge ratings draw. It averaged in the double digits in audience share (hovering between 13 and 10 in Seasons 1-4), but in its current season it has slipped to a 9 average and some 9 million viewers. Yet ABC kept the show around, attributable perhaps to a combination of the rabid fan base and the producer's not-insignificant cachet.

"The ratings for 'Boston Legal' always were frustrating to me," admits ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson. "There's always been so much anecdotal support for the show, but our good friends at Nielsen (parent company of The Hollywood Reporter) haven't seemed to agree."

But McPherson appears to counter Kelley's contention that ABC was never excited about the series -- the executive says he certainly is a fan.

"David has always been really fantastic in bringing real issues to life on the small screen, and this show was no exception," he says. "It had really different rhythms, but the core relationships always were consistent and winning. Spader and Shatner sitting out there on the balcony with their cigar will go down as something ingrained in television history."

Of course, "Boston Legal" was more than just a couple of guys winding down with a smoke. There was, for instance, a conscious effort made from the outset to give the show a different look, texture and style from every other legal series that preceded it, maintains executive producer and frequent director Bill D'Elia. But the downside of that kind of innovation was what D'Elia described as "a very difficult birth."

"Our first year was very difficult," he acknowledges. "I'd been brought in during the last six episodes of 'The Practice,' but getting the tone and character right required a lot of toying with the formula. We had to shoot a second version of the pilot, and it was 18 days before we had a template for what the show would become. But once we settled on the kinds of stories we'd be telling, and the kinds of characters we'd be focusing on, we knew we had something special."

It helped to have what D'Elia describes as "a cast of thoroughbreds. All I had to do as a director was ask, 'Hey, what do you think about our doing this?' and they'd nail it. Every time."

Kelley will now turn his attention to the next project, his first under his new Warner Bros. deal: an hourlong NBC legal comedy -- as yet untitled -- that's geared for a fall 2009 start. That's the way things tend to work in the David E. Kelley world. Downtime is pretty much unheard of. Out with the old, in with the new. But that doesn't mean he isn't feeling a twinge of melancholy as his latest creation heads off into the sunset.

"The truth is, I never expected this show to last into a fifth season," he admits. "We went on a leap of faith that we'd have fun and be proud of what we did. But longevity was never a part of that equation. We realized we could be one year and out. So, you know, all things considered, it's hard to be disappointed with where we wound up."