'L.A. Law' is scrambling to stop the slide

February 20, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television critic

It's time for fans of "L.A. Law" to face the unpleasant possibility that maybe the show can't be fixed. Maybe these are the final days of a once-great TV series, and come May, the doors of McKenzie, Brackman will close forever.

NBC is trying to save the series. Boy, is it trying to save it.

Backstage, it's becoming a regular soap opera, the network is trying so hard. Executive Producer Patricia Green resigned or was forced to resign two weeks ago, depending on whom you're listening to. And Steven Bochco, the series creator, is coming back to take total-hands-on or maybe only semi-hands-on control of the show, depending on who's describing Bochco's new role.

In front of the camera, they're playing one of their big cards tonight (at 10 on WMAR, Channel 2) with the return of Jimmy Smits as Victor Sifuentes. Right now, it's a one-week only return, which was negotiated last year, a spokeswoman for the show said this week. But she indicated that they are trying to get Smits to commit to more.

In tonight's show, Sifuentes pursues his civil suit against the drunken driver responsible for his brother's death. He also confronts the break-up of his relationship with Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey), and viewers finally find out what went wrong between them. The show was co-written by David E. Kelley, another former executive producer who is returning to work with Bochco.

But even if Bochco and Kelley have total creative control and do great stuff, it may be too late. After tonight, there are only nine more shows left this season. And all but three or four are already completed. So, that's what? -- two or three shows Bochco can put his stamp on? And, though Bochco's a brilliant guy, sometimes his stamp comes up "Cop Rock" or "Capitol Critters."

And where to start to fix this series? So many things are going haywire. Real-life couple Jill Eikenberry and Baltimore's Michael Tucker -- who a few years ago were TV's hottest couple with all the Venus Butterfly business -- last week topped a list in TV Guide titled "Toxic Spills: TV Chemistry Gone Awry." The story was about what makes "TV couples click." Eikenberry and Tucker were cited as a couple with no on-air click left.

Earlier this year, Alan Rachins (the Brackman of McKenzie, Brackman) worried aloud in a Sun interview about the producers spending so much time trying to establish a seemingly endless parade of new characters that the older characters like him had no lines. They added another new character last week, Alex DePalma (played by Anthony DeSando). Who are all these people and where do they come from? You miss a week, and half the population of the show has changed. Is Alex DePalma related to Louie DePalma of "Taxi"? Will we care if C. J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) kisses him?

I have my own theory about why the days of "L.A. Law" may be numbered: It was a show for the '80s that has not traveled well into the present decade.

The boardroom was the center of the series. Each show opened there, and many of the biggest dramatic scenes were played there. The series celebrated corporate America, as so much of popular culture did during those years. It did so by selling us the myth that at the top of the corporate ladder, presiding over the boardroom was a friendly, compassionate, scrupulously fair man with wire-rim glasses, like Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) -- a kinder, gentler CEO.

That myth isn't playing so well these days. And all the Jimmy Smitses and Steven Bochcos in Hollywood can't change that.

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