Ken Tucker
April 26, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT

After two weeks of reruns, L.A. Law is back with four fresh episodes to finish off its fifth season, and fans are freaking. What’s going to happen? If the Law writers could push mean old nasty Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur) down an elevator shaft; if they could give amorous Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) a nervous breakdown; if they could force Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin), Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey), and Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits) to leave the firm of McKenzie, Brackman to start their own law practice, then — well, anything could happen, couldn’t it? What’s next? Will office boy Benny (Larry Drake) execute a corporate power play and takeover? Will senior partner Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) be divested of his pinstripes and reduced to refilling the rest room paper-towel dispensers?

It’s not often that series television gets this edgy and unpredictable, and it’s even rarer that a hit as solidly established as L.A. Law risks alienating its audience by messing with its characters’ lives. But the risk is paying off: The show’s ratings surged upward after Rosalind plummeted downward, and while pop-culture touchstones from Dallas to Twin Peaks shrivel up and die, L.A. Law just keeps getting juicier.

The wet smack that new lawyer C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) planted on her colleague Abby Perkins (Michele Greene), for example, was the kiss that stopped prime time in its tracks. Who’d have thought that old Law would be the show to make same-sex affection a goosey thrill? And while the love affair between Grace and Victor might have been predicted — given the romantic mathematics of this law office, it was an inevitable combination — the unbuckled-belt boisterousness of their tryst was steamy. Suddenly, L.A. Law is the show to talk about at the office on Friday mornings — a remarkable turnaround for a show that, in its 1989-90 season, was aimless and half dead.

Basically, the revitalization of L.A. Law can be ascribed to the show’s having nothing — and everything — to lose. The five-year contracts of Hamlin, Dey, and Smits are up at the end of this season. NBC hastens to assure us that there’s the possibility Hamlin and Smits will be back for a reduced number of episodes in the fall, but let’s face it: Most likely, they’re outta here. So is executive producer and head writer David E. Kelley, who succeeded the show’s creators, Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher.

For another show, the loss of such crucial players would signal the end. But since its premiere in 1986, L.A. Law has always been a series with no center, moving from courtroom to boardroom to bedroom, from one costar to another. This gives the show a stylistic flexibility that makes easier the introduction of different characters, and three new lawyers have already pumped up the show’s volume. Donohoe’s C.J. is certaimly the most intriguing rookie; the writers have used her Britishness as a metaphor for eccentricity. There’s no predicting what she’ll do next, and it’s exhilarating to see a woman in this sort of oddball cutup role.

If John Spencer can keep his Tommy Mullaney from becoming a cartoonish ambulance chaser, Tommy’s cheap-suit bluntness will provide a useful and much-needed contrast to Law‘s traditional slickness. So far, Cecil Hoffmann’s Zoey Clemmons has made the least impact, but she has great promise. Hoffmann was skilled and alluring in the excellent short-lived 1989 drama series Dream Street, and on Law, she’s in place to take over as a more interesting strong-female role model than Dey was ever permitted to become.

To be sure, L.A. Law is not without its problems. Due to return next season are the show’s dud duo, Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker) and Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry). A few years back, their odd-couple courtship — based as it was on their real-life marriage — was sharp-witted and sexy. Since then, however, Stuart and Ann have become sullen and self-righteous; their mouths turn down in identical sour expressions. The Markowitz-Kelseys now exist primarily to suggest that office marriages don’t work — who needs these Crabby Appletons?

And as for the emotional crack-up of Bernsen’s lyin’, cheatin’ Arnie Becker, well, to quote his long-suffering former secretary, Roaxanne (Susan Ruttan), ”No one cares, Arnie!” Conceived originally as the ferret face of capitalism, a Me Decade antihero, Arnie is now just a balding yuppie who can’t keep his pants on when ther’s an attractive woman in his office. In season six, the writers are going to have to work overtime to make Arnie bearable, let alone sympathetic. They might start by asking Bernsen to pull in his ever-quivering lower lip — Arnie always seems on the verge of blubbering.

So who knows what will happen this week, or next season? No one’s telling, but now it’s safe to assume the unexpected — reason enough to tune in. A-

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