Scott Garfield, ABC
Left to right, James Spader, Nia Long, Ann Cusack and William Shatner star in "Boston Legal" on ABC.

More often than not, "Boston Legal" is just about the strangest show on TV.

Nominally a legal drama, it's populated by characters for whom the term "quirky" is a massive understatement. They're just downright weird. And not just Denny Crane (William Shatner), who's sort of senile and has an excuse for his weirdness.

And yet ... "Boston Legal" still manages to take on tough topics, see things from more than just one side of the issue, and make viewers think, even as they're being entertained by all the weirdness.

In tonight's episode (9 p.m., Ch. 4), Alan Shore (James Spader) is called upon to help ambitious attorney Vanessa Walker (Nia Long) win an unwinnable case. Their client is Dr. Donna Follette (Ann Cusack), a New Orleans physician on trial for murder after she euthanized five patients as Hurricane Katrina floodwaters rose.

If the script, by Craig Turk, Janet Leahy and series creator David E. Kelley, was as simple-minded as Denny often seems to be (he tags along to Louisiana), the doctor would be some sort of warm-hearted saint. But she's prickly, often icy. And she refuses to take Alan's advice and admit what she did, insisting she was only "managing pain" for the patients in question.

There are arguments both logical and impassioned both for holding her to the rule of law and recognizing the situation for the unspeakable tragedy that it was. Yes, the episode tilts in favor of one side of the argument, but not at the expense of the other.

And nobody is portrayed as a fool, as is so often the case in what passes for real-life discourse in this country.

Not that this episode of "Boston Legal" is some sort of high-minded lesson in civics. Back in Boston, Denise Bauer (Julie Bowen) is being pursued by both Jeffrey Coho (Craig Bierko) and Brad Chase (Mark Valley), while cross-dressing Clarence — no longer dressed as Clarice — wants to sue the all-women gym that kicked him out when he kicked off his dress.

Weirdly enough, that last story line turns into something sort of sweet.

The thing about "Boston Legal" is you never know quite what to expect. Except that it will be weird.

TIME SHIFTING: According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., "Studio 60" is No. 1 in time-shifting — it's the show that gets the greatest bump in viewership from people who record it on their DVRs and watch it later in the same week.

That's not watching it later the same day, a different Nielsen measurement.

In the case of "Studio 60," time-shifting adds 11 percent more viewers — from about 8 million per week to almost 9 million. (But do any time-shifters watch the commercials? I never do.)

Other top time shifters this season are: "Heroes," 9.1 percent; "Gilmore Girls," 7.9 percent; "America's Next Top Model," 7.7 percent; "30 Rock," 7.5 percent; "Friday Night Lights," 7.5 percent; "The Nine," 6.7 percent; "Supernatural," 6.7 percent; and "Kidnapped," "One Tree Hill" and "Smallville," 6.6 percent each.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com