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Can ''L.A. Law'' be saved?

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For the next three Thursdays, NBC will present final arguments in a particularly gripping trial in the court of public opinion: The People v. L.A. Law. The charges: Criminal negligence of the talented cast and the soapy but sophisticated storylines that once made the NBC drama essential viewing; reckless endangerment of L.A. Law’s status as a hit; and flagrant abuse of a TV monument by turning a popular series into something as dull and dingy as yesterday’s legal briefs. Speaking for the prosecution are critics, who have shouted their objections to this season’s episodes, and viewers, who have deserted by the millions. For the defense: the show’s executive producers, who admit L.A. Law is guilty on some counts but insist the show is mending its ways.

L.A. Law‘s troubles began last fall, when the four-time Emmy winner for best drama series began a chaotic changing of the guard following the departures of executive producer David Kelley and actors Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, and Michele Greene. Under a new producer, Patricia Green, the show began its sixth season by introducing four new characters, ignoring several old ones, and focusing so exclusively on court cases that even NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield bemoaned its lack of a personal touch. ”When we brought in new characters, the show became less about the core people,” says executive producer Rick Wallace. ”It was like giving birth to a new show.”

”It was difficult for everyone — including Patricia,” says Richard Dysart, who plays senior partner Leland Mackenzie. ”Since L.A. Law was conceived, two kinds of stories have battled — what goes on in the courtroom versus the bedroom. The older characters were developed both ways. But the new people were thrown into a courtroom before anyone knew who they were. Viewers would say, ‘Who the hell is that?”’

Halfway through the season, Green departed, and series creator Steven Bochco returned to full-time work on the show. The results can be seen in this season’s final episodes, airing May 7, 14, and 21. ”We’re back to telling personal stories with week-to-week continuity,” says Wallace, ”and the court cases will impact on characters’ lives. They won’t be external events anymore.” Among this month’s developments will be the departure of Grace Van Owen (actress Susan Dey really is leaving this time). And for next season, the show has signed A Martinez (Santa Barbara) as a litigator.

But L.A. Law‘s problems are far from solved. The show still lacks a permanent head writer, and its 16-actor ensemble is severely overcrowded. With new characters fighting for airtime with veterans, ”We’re going to have to talk about changes,” says Wallace. ”The cast is too large to service our characters as well as we’d like. We can’t afford to lose track of Arnie Becker for three weeks.” Though he won’t name names, Wallace says the cast will shrink considerably.

”It’s very frightening,” says Conchata Ferrell, who plays entertainment power broker Susan Bloom, a new character. ”I have no complaints except I don’t know if I’m coming back next season, which is everybody’s complaint. Knowing they’re going to trim the cast, I check the bottom of that elevator shaft every time I walk by.”

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