December 03, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

No other television show has ever displayed such erratic mood swings as L.A. Law (NBC, Thursdays, 10-11 p.m.). Now in its eighth season, Law is the grumpy uncle of quality drama-it’s been around and it’s not trying to charm you, so take it or leave it. Last season, we left it in droves, as Law offered such sights as a topless A Martinez nuzzling babies, Michael Tucker getting the bejesus beaten out of him in a shameless L.A.-riots story line, and too many new characters who revealed utterly no character. Law’s dwindling audience probably had legal grounds for a class-action suit over defamation of brain cells.

A series gone wrong rarely rights itself. By that time, its stars itch to take other roles, and its makers are on to other projects (Law’s cocreator Steven Bochco was giving his best stuff last year to the creation of NYPD Blue, for example). But when a Law graduate, writer-producer William M. Finkelstein, saw his own lawyer show, Civil Wars, canceled last spring for low ratings-it rarely attracted as many viewers as L.A. Law draws on a bad week-he seemed to take it in stride. By then he had already strolled back into the posh offices of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, and Whoever We’ve Just Hired This Week, and he has now managed to make L.A. Law worth watching again. How’d he do it? Basically, two words: Eli Levinson. This soft-spoken New York attorney, played by Alan Rosenberg, originated on Civil Wars-the only regular character in the history of television to be introduced in mid-nervous breakdown. Eli started out wifty and ended up wise, an intelligent, gentle, passionate fellow. As such, he’s just the sort of character to bring both brains and emotion to what had become the dumbed-down, numbed-out L.A. Law. Finkelstein excels at the small joke, one subtle enough to make the viewer feel smart but broad enough to dent the consciousness of anyone starting to feel dozy after 10 p.m. The winking symbol of this style is the slight modification in the show’s opening credits this season. Law used to commence with the forceful closing of the trunk of a Mercedes, a status talisman of the & greedhead ’80s; now the car receiving the slam is a Bentley. This is the automobile Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) lusted after and ultimately acquired early this season, but it’s also a sign, a sly assertion that there will be an increase in brassy classiness on this series with Finkelstein now behind its wheel as executive producer. In one of Finkelstein’s better small jokes, it turns out that Eli is Stuart Markowitz’s cousin, and Stuart has greased Eli’s path into the West Coast law firm, accompanied by Eli’s Civil Wars colleague, the tart-tongued, bat-wing- eyebrowed secretary Denise Ianello (Debi Mazar). It’s been great fun watching Eli and Denise react with smart skepticism to the Law regulars, from Arnie (Denise has already cut him dead) to Larry Drake’s increasingly morose Benny (I feel a Benny-on-Prozac subplot coming on). It may be that Finkelstein’s greatest talent lies in casting. These days, Law’s story arcs are populated with more interesting supporting actors: The Simpsons’ Harry Shearer as a hilariously fatuous office-security expert; Martin Mull using his prodigious smarm as a devious travel agent; ga-ga-gorgeous Joan Severance as a tough interior decorator; fuzzy Richard Masur as a thoughtful ex-radical ready, 30 years on, to turn himself in for a political crime. The stories are better too. The plot built around Masur obviously parallels the recent real-life surrender of ’60s fugitive Katherine Power, but with its own poignant twists and a powerfully understated performance by Homefront’s Dick Anthony Williams as a former Black Panther Party member. But what of Finkelstein’s other major addition, a born-again Christian attorney played by Rising Sun’s Alexandra Powers? It was shrewd of Finkelstein to introduce this sort of character-Law has received lots of much-needed publicity from a trend-starved press eager to write about a new religiosity on network TV-though, really, this character is the only example of such a movement. So far, however, Powers’ Jane Halliday is a glamorous wet noodle whose monotone and severe manner play into the cliche of religious people as humorless and literal-minded. And while an NBC press release describes Powers’ character as a ”non-judgmental fundamentalist Christian,” Halliday has spent most of her time doing nothing but passing judgment, gratuitously tut-tutting abortion, drugs, and extramarital sex. She doesn’t just blow off Arnie when he makes one of his usual oily advances-she makes sure he understands why, as a * deeply moral person, she doesn’t want his paws on her. L.A. Law still has some of its earlier problems-what, for instance, to do with tired characters like Douglas Brackman (Alan Rachins), Tommy Mullaney (John Spencer), and Martinez’s Daniel Morales?-but that Law is once again worth fretting over is a measure of its startling renewal. Benny, call your therapist. B

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