We gave it a C-
Sure, other series are having their problems these days — Designing Women, for example, still hasn’t found a way to work Julia Duffy’s tart comedic skills into its increasingly sweet mix; Knots Landing voluntarily stopped production for a while to lubricate its creaking joints, to apply a fresh coat of oiliness to William Devane. But no long-running show is floundering quite as badly as L.A. Law. What used to be the most brisk, unpredictable drama on television has become a Mad magazine parody of itself, teeming with corny caricatures instead of solid characters, clichés instead of crisp dialogue. Once firmly lodged near the top of the Nielsens, Law‘s ratings have fluctuated wildly of late, and hasn’t your Friday-morning water cooler chat about the show taken on a grumpy, who-cares air?: Why has venerable Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) been reduced to brief comic bits , with monkeys? When did the pugnaciousness of Tommy Mullaney (John Spencer) sour into sneery smugness? When did Ann Kelsey and Stuart Markowitz (Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker) become the dullest couple on earth?
It’s significant that the worry and discontent of people involved with Law has become increasingly public. NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield recently told The New York Times: ”I’ve been very involved in trying to fix the show…Where are the wonderful character revelations we’ve gotten used to seeing?” In USA Today, Corbin Bernsen made an open plea to the show’s writers to enliven his character, the once-a-wise-guy, now-a-snooze divorce lawyer Arnie Becker. Nonetheless, Bernsen said that if ”you look at the worst of the shows, I still think they’re way up there in quality.” Compared with, say, Jake and the Fatman, I guess.
And this month, that journal of postmodern pop-cultural analysis, Redbook, has offered an article headlined ”The Devil in Miss Donohoe,” in which the actress who plays Law‘s blunt, frisky C.J. Lamb theorizes that NBC doesn’t want to show us an ”irretrievably gay” C.J. — one possible reason her role seems to have been de-emphasized this season. Sigh. Remember the good old days, when Amanda Donohoe’s character smooched Michelle Green’s Abby Perkins? Whatever happened to C.J.’s sexuality?
Sex, in fact — once one of Law‘s most potent elements — has become downright embarrassing on this show. Remember, long ago, the hot clinches between Harry Hamlin’s Michael Kuzak and Susan Dey’s Grace (”Oh, Mickey!”) Van Owen? Compare that couple with the new romantic duo of Arnie and his former secretary, Roxanne (Susan Ruttan). Here we have an ongoing plot line whose sole intention is to prove that consummated lust is a bore.
No, these days, interoffice trysting at the firm of McKenzie, Brackman has become so matter-of-fact that the affair between Cecil Hoffmann’s Zoey and Blair Underwood’s Jonathan seems less like spontaneous combustion than the writing staff’s statistical inevitability. (”All right now, which two characters haven’t we put in bed together yet? Zoey and Jonathan? Oooh-a little Jungle Fever thing! Great!”) Law‘s current cast even has an extremely promising candidate to heat up the show — sloe-eyed secretary Gwen, played by Sheila Kelley. Kelley is so inherently incendiary that Arsenio Hall threw a jacket over her miniskirted thighs when she recently appeared on his show. But in most episodes this year on Law, Gwen has been kept in the background, glowing, smoldering.
By now it’s obvious that every one of the characters introduced this season has been a disaster. Michael Cumpsty seems to be a talented actor miscast as the chesty hunk Frank Kittredge. Conchata Ferrell’s Susan Bloom, who spends entirely too much time blowing kisses at Leland, has succeeded only too well in making her pushy, obnoxious entertainment lawyer a figure to be avoided at all costs. (We’ve already said bye-bye to rookie Tom ”We Hardly Knew Ye” Verica, whose never-established character got booted from the firm at Christmastime.)
Lately, Law has been calling in its markers, attempting to recapture the old glory by squeezing scripts out of former executive producer David E. Kelley (whose Jan. 9 story was a disappointing one, save for a showstopping turn by Kevin Spacey as a wealthy loony-bird) and the series’ cocreator himself, Steven Bochco. The Jan. 16 show, cowritten by Bochco and David Milch, was, if anything, a bit worse than Kelley’s. The episode fell back on an an- noying trick the series has used throughout its history, the old when-in- doubt-get-Benny-in-troublebit: Hauled into court for taking in a 12-year- old boy without adopting him, sweet Benny (Larry Drake) was used once again to jerk our tears, and this time, the manipulation was just too mechanical, too crass.
The person most likely to take the fall for Law‘s present droopiness is new executive producer Patricia Green. But maybe it’s not entirely Green’s, or anyone else’s, fault. In 1986, L.A. Law debuted at the height of the Reagan era as a shrewd celebration of the yuppie ethos, reveling in the revitalized wealth, power, and glamour of the corporate world (it would take thirtysomething, a year later, to raise the specters of doubt and guilt — which is why it was never as popular as Law).
But in 1992, L.A. Law is disintegrating as fast as the economy: It’s Bushed. Perhaps, like Hill Street Blues before it, L.A. Law is a TV groundbreaker that stayed around a season or two after its pop-cultural moment had passed. Maybe it’s time McKenzie, Brackman went belly up. C-