'L.A. Law' tries to recapture lost magic

June 22, 1992|By Mike Duffy | Mike Duffy,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

The going got a little rocky on "L.A. Law" last season.

After five years of critical acclaim, high ratings and Emmy Awards, the quality-blessed NBC legal drama suffered a mid-life creative crisis.

The storytelling turned clumsy and shallow, critics started sniping and viewers began bailing out for TV alternatives on Thursday nights, particularly ABC's hot newsmagazine, "PrimeTime Live."

"The writing was perhaps not as strong for every show as it had been in the past," said Susan Ruttan, ever the diplomat, in a recent interview.

As Roxanne Melman, long-suffering secretary to slippery divorce attorney Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen), Ms. Ruttan has been an "L.A. Law" mainstay since the show premiered in 1986.

Most of the blame for the show's surprising decline was heaped on new executive producer Patricia Green and a staff of new writers. Now Ms. Green is gone, another group of writers has been hired and "L.A. Law" co-creator Steven Bochco has returned to oversee the show's revival next season.

"It's a hard show to write for," Ms. Ruttan said. "It requires a certain kind of mind-set. It's a mind-set that's askew and intelligent, morally strong and liberal. And there's that strange sense of humor. 'L.A. Law' offers a particular view of the world."

Besides turmoil behind the scenes last year, there was tumult in front of the cameras. Familiar faces were gone. Jimmy Smits, Harry Hamlin and Michele Greene left the series after the 1991 season. And several new characters, including Conchata Ferrell, as brassy entertainment attorney Susan Bloom, and Michael Cumpsty as amoral legal weasel Frank Kitteredge, were tossed at viewers without much introduction.

After one season, both Ms. Ferrell and Mr. Cumpsty have been dropped.

"It's a fact of life that nobody is indispensable, especially in this business," Ms. Ruttan said somewhat ruefully.

"It's not that they [Ferrell and Cumpsty] are being let go because they're bad. It's just that they're trying to bring the cast back down to a manageable number of characters. At one point last year, we had 16 characters."

Even the best writers would have trouble juggling that many fictional lives in any sort of compelling manner.

Ms. Ruttan is convinced that Mr. Bochco -- who also has "Civil Wars" and "Doogie Howser, MD" on ABC -- will be a key ingredient in returning "L.A. Law" to its absorbing, quality-rich ways.

"There's nobody like Steven, I just think he's a genius," Ms. Ruttan said. "He's so weird and so wonderful. He's a debonair, intelligent man, but there's this kinky streak to him. And that's intriguing."

After six years of playing Roxanne Melman, Ms. Ruttan says there are times when her work life isn't very intriguing.

"How many times can you walk into a room and say, 'Arnie, there's someone on the phone for you' "?

But those times are brief. Besides, Roxanne Melman has been blessed with being a fully drawn female on an intelligently crafted, contemporary drama series. In other words, she's an exception to the prime-time rule.

Over the six years of "L.A. Law," Roxanne has fallen madly in love, faced the possibility of jail, filed for bankruptcy, gotten married to a creep, divorced the creep, gone on a diet and re-established her relationships with her father and with Arnie.

"Her life has been transformed on a regular basis," Ms. Ruttan said of her fictional alter ego. "She wants to learn. She wants to make changes. And that's good."

Ms. Ruttan believes "L.A. Law" is capable of bouncing back. But it's very tough to rekindle the TV magic once it's been lost.

"Everybody is working really hard to bring back that original enthusiasm and energy to the show," Ms. Ruttan said. "If this is the last year, it should go out great and not wimpy."

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