'L.A. Law' is back, and so is Diana Muldaur

Television

October 17, 1990|By Michael Hill

So you didn't think we had seen the last of Rosalind Shays, now did you?

The woman that "L.A. Law" fans loved to hate last season couldn't be allowed to take over the firm and turn it into a cutthroat bunch of cynical sharks. But then again, she was too yummy a character to let go.

So, Diana Muldaur's right-on reading of an '80s hard-edge type -- matched only by David Clennon's Miles Drentell on "thirtysomething" -- is once again at center stage when NBC's "L.A. Law" begins its fifth season tomorrow night at 10 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR).

At the end of last season, Shays had been forced out as senior partner. First brought aboard a foundering McKenzie, Brackman law firm to bring in new clients and new billings, she had proven to be the toughest lawyer of the bunch and stood on the top rung of the ladder when Richard Dysart's distinguished Leland McKenzie decided to step aside.

But her no-holds-barred, full-throttle approach that seemed so appealing when it was elevating the partners' earnings, finally worked its way through to the ethical core at the center of McKenzie, Brackman and she was given the boot.

Afterward, Jill Eikenberry's character of Anne Kelsey noted in the ladies' room that such a fate probably wouldn't have befallen Shays if she had been of a different gender. Where most women would have seen sisterly sympathy, Shays saw an opening. So tonight's episode opens with McKenzie, Brackman about to defend itself against a sex discrimination suit filed by Shays.

The series is following the same tactic it used a year ago -- coming on late so it can run a lengthy uninterrupted skein of first-run episodes. That worked last season, but so far the tactic has proven a bit more costly to NBC this fall as its replacement, "Law & Order," which now moves to Tuesdays at 10 p.m., has fallen off in the ratings, well below what "L.A. Law" reruns did a year ago.

Tomorrow night's hour should prove an effective antidote to such problems. It's a delight, continuing the level of high quality that the series achieved last season when Shays' presence added a dimension of appeal and helped "L.A. Law" win another Emmy as best dramatic series.

Especially potent in this premiere is the juxtaposition of comedy and drama. The most serious elements come in the subplot involving Michael Kuzak's defense of a young, white policeman accused of murder in the shooting death of a black youth, "L.A. Law's" take on the "Bonfire of the Vanities" plot, with Paul Winfield playing the Al Sharpton-type character.

Broad comedic elements come in the subplot about Roxanne's seemingly senile father -- Vincent Gardenia doing his best work in 20 years -- though it has its bittersweet tragic side.

In between is the centerpiece, the sex discrimination suit. Victor Sifuentes -- Jimmy Smits coming off his own Emmy-winning season -- and former judge, recently-added firm member Grace Van Owen -- Susan Dey looking a bit too thin -- are acting as the lawyers for the firm and find their clients to be the most meddlesome, irascible, quarrelsome bunch of second-guessers they've ever had to deal with.

But even as you howl at some wonderfully crafted, meeting room comedy, you realize that the lawsuit is tearing the firm apart, mentally and physically, forcing its members to confront the same ethical standards that turned them against Shays in the first place.

"L.A. Law" has its contrivances -- particularly irritating in this hour is the way it doles out the testimony in the lawsuit in dribs and drabs, never letting you hear the cross examination -- but come back to it tomorrow night and you'll probably find you won't have a free Thursday evening until sometime next May.

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