By M.A. Peel
The sexy sax riff wailing over the black screen to the declarative thump of the car trunk, both primal and urban. As opening credits go, it offered the total package.
And so L.A. Law announced itself to weekly prime time with a classic Mike Post back-beat composition on Oct. 3, 1986 (after its two-hour pilot movie was shown twice the month before). From the close-up of the license plate for the Golden State we see bright sunshine bouncing off the windows of the tall, glass, L.A. buildings. It’s the same brightness we enjoyed in the '80s Remington Steele and Moonlighting, both zeitgeist influences on the lighter side of Law. Bochco’s own Hill Street Blues, with its large ensemble cast and interweaving storylines, was the more direct model for the legal drama. No longer on the gritty streets of the anonymous urban city, L.A. Law brought interesting, contemporary issues into the pristine, modern offices of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak and mixed them up with quirky romantic entanglements and a dash of the bizarre.
Howard Rosenberg wrote of the premiere:
“There should be a law requiring more series like NBC's new L.A. Law. Its premiere, at 9 tonight immediately raises the level of the fall season about a dozen notches…Though vastly different in tone and texture, L.A. Law honors the tradition of that fine old CBS courtroom series of the 1960s, The Defenders."
That’s what’s hard to remember 25 years hence: what the landscape was before L.A.Law. We live in a world that knows Ally McBeal, Bobby Donnell of The Practice, Alan Shore and Denny Crane of Boston Legal, Patty Hewes of Damages. But before them audiences knew and loved Perry Mason (1957 to 66), Lawrence Preston, The Defenders (1961-65), Judd, for the Defense, (1967-69), Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law (1971-74). These characters were fairly one dimensional, stiff, less “life like” than those we know today. The TV naturalism that broke through in the '70s (as surely as color did the decade before) with likes of All in the Family and Maude and continued with Hill Street and St. Elsewhere in the '80s first hit the legal profession with L.A.Law. That’s one reason it was such a hit. It also was fresh and engaging, with good dialogue and smart perspectives on difficult issues. It earned 15 Emmys, with four for outstanding drama series in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1991.
What pulled me in as a viewer was the Grace Van Owen/Michael Kuzak romance. Grace was a model for young women in the '80s: reserved (which became dour as the seasons went on), good at her job, and the love interest of Harry Hamlin and Jimmy Smits. Who wouldn’t want to be her? Her style of dress started a trend. Rose Marie Turl of The Los Angeles Times reported in 1988 that “what has become known in the retail trade as 'the 'Law blouse' is surfacing all over Los Angeles. ‘I don't remember a blouse like this: the V-neck, the softness and the fact it works with any jacket,’ marvels Lee Hogan Cass, fashion director for the Broadway. ‘Wrap blouses have been in existence for a long time, but this is a little different version. It's a very feminine way of softening a suit.’“
I also got hooked into the surprise romance of Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry) and Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker). Their romance became even more popular than Van Owen and Kuzak/Sifuentes, helped by the never defined Venus Butterfly. A storyline that transcended the series was Diana Muldaur as Rosalind Shays. She comes to the firm as a rainmaker, then maneuvers to oust Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart). They become involved amid the doublecrossing, which was interesting enough, but it’s the scene at the elevator where Leland thinks Roz is upset that he won’t marry her, when she turns to enter the elevator and falls down the shaft to her death. (An episode mischievously titled "Good to the Last Drop.") It ranked No. 81 on TV Guide/TV Land's list of 100 Most Memorable TV Moments and it’s part of the bizarre edge to the series, which started with the partner Chaney dead at his desk.
The comings and goings of the creative team of L.A. Law would make its own interesting series. Suffice to say it was created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher and through the years saw the talents of David E. Kelley, John Tinker, John Masius and William Finklestein in creative control. By season six, ratings had dropped. Here’s the ever curmudgeonly John J. O’Connor from The New York Times on Oct. 17, 1991:
“The formula, with its office politics here and court cases there, has gone flat. The scenes in court have all the fizz of a set-in-concrete Matlock encounter as dramatic outbursts alternate regularly with brooding stares of significance, the camera lingering pointedly. The issues are current, but the scripts are strictly fill-in-the-blanks exploitations of topics like spouse abuse or the legal status of Vietnam M.I.A.'s. In short, L.A. Law has become totally predictable.”
In 1992, both Steven Bochco and David Kelley returned to the show, to see if they could bolster its popularity. It continued on to an eighth season, ending on May 19, 1994.
In 2009 the ABA Journal ran a poll for the best legal TV shows. Not surprisingly L.A. Law was voted No. 1, 15 years after it left the air. The editors’ comment is very telling: “For lawyers of a certain age, Leland McKenzie is the managing partner they are still looking for. Douglas Brackman Jr. is the manager they seem to end up with.”
John Leonard had some harsh words for its impact on its descendants in a 2008 review of Raising the Bar:
“But Bochco’s next big hit, L.A. Law, after a long and lurid run of big money and soap shenanigans, inspired so much contempt in the popular culture for private-practice law that subsequent noble-noodle shows like Shannon’s Deal, Eddie Dodd, The Wright Verdicts, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill and Sweet Justice never stood a ratings chance.”
Were we really poisoned by the money and slickness of McKenzie, Brackman? Perhaps. There were many cultural casualties of the 1980s. We’ll see if Kathy Bates and Harry’s Law purifies the image of our legal profession for a new generation.
Back in 1993, Steven Bochco and the cast and creative team of L.A. Law were the honorees of the gala of the then-Museum of Television & Radio, now The Paley Center for Media. Bochco filmed a short piece for it with the partners at McKenzie, Brackman debating whether they should go to the gala. You can see this never-seen-outside-of that-dinner video on The Paley Center for Media site. So pop on over to see Leland McKenzie, Douglas Brackman, Ann Kelsey, Arnie Becker, Jonathan Rollins and the gang in the conference room, one last time.