Judgment's in: Despite changes, 'L.A. Law' is still worth watching


May 16, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It has been an incredible year of turmoil, turnover, takedowns and and takeovers in the boardroom of America's favorite corporate law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, Kuzak & Becker.

With the season's last episode airing tonight at 10 on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), and at least two big stars saying farewell forever, the question is whether "L.A. Law" can survive all the comings and goings.

A preview tape of tonight's show was unavailable, but for those who have not been following their score cards, here's an update.

First the goings: Actor Harry Hamlin is leaving to pursue "other opportunities." So goodbye, Michael Kuzak. Actor Jimmy Smits is leaving, too, but he says he might do some special guest appearances next year. So semi-goodbye, Victor Sifuentes. And actor Susan Dey said she was gone, but now she's negotiating tTC to return. So maybe goodbye, Grace Van Owen. Off-camera, producer and writer David Kelley is definitely gone after three years of running the show.

The comings include three new characters -- Amanda Donahoe as C. J. Lamb, John Spencer as Tommy Mullaney and Cecil Hoffmann as Zoey Clemmons.

One of the first things Lamb did upon her arrival at McKenzie & Company was to engage Abby Perkins (Michele Green) in a romantic kiss -- the first such kiss between two women in series television. Perkins declared her heterosexuality the next day, while Lamb described herself as "flexible." Clearly, there is something still there between the two.

Lamb, Mullaney -- a lawyer in the firm's litigation department -- and Clemmons, Mullaney's ex-wife and an assistant district attorney, are all interesting characters played by talented actors. Lamb's flexibility is especially intriguing.

But that's not why it's a safe bet that "L.A. Law" will continue to be watched in 16 million homes each week. Above average acting is only part of its appeal.

What makes "L.A. Law" important to so many of us these days is that we need to believe corporate America really is like McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, Kuzak and Becker. And that belief will probably hold as long as Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) is sitting at the conference table as the personification of decent and fair-minded management.

Most of us understand very little about life at the top of the companies we work for. All we know is that overall, things got screwy during the 1980s with junk bonds, corporate raiders and bad investments. Now everybody is talking downsizing and layoffs. And it scares us.

That's the dynamic of needs, fears and social change "L.A. Law" speaks to. McKenzie & Company is the corporation with a social conscience and a heart. It finds a place for the retarded Benny (Larry Drake). It allows lots of pro bono by Victor and Michael. It is the prime-time, dream version of what corporations like General Electric are trying to convince us of with ads claiming, "We bring good things to life."

"L.A. Law" started out five years ago as an '80s show celebrating the lifestyle of these very upwardly mobile attorneys. It has been changing the last few years, on a new course set this year when the greedy Rosalind plunged to her death.

Leland and the reconstituted McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, Kuzak and Becker are fantasies we need in these hard economic times -- fantasies we haven't needed this badly since the 1930s.

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