NBC says 'L.A. Law' is reformed, pleads for clemency with disappointed viewers

April 11, 1993|By John J. O'Connor | John J. O'Connor,New York Times News Service

Previously on "L.A. Law": Battered during the Los Angeles riots, Stuart has become sexually impaired and his marriage to Ann is falling apart; Gwen is being stalked by an erotomaniac mad for her lover Daniel; Arnie has become a film producer and is planning to turn Douglas' autobiographical story about doing time into a television movie starring Erik Estrada; and the attractions at a nearby strip club include a topless string quartet.

Now on "L.A. Law": Falling weepily into each other's arms, Stuart and Ann are back on marital target; the erotomaniac has been dispatched with a policeman's bullet; Arnie, suddenly realizing that "when I'm being a lawyer, I know exactly what I'm doing," has dumped the movie business to return exclusively to divorce law, and his first new sultry client is convinced that "underneath that reasonable exterior, there's a killer and a stud fighting to get free." The jury on the string quartet is apparently still out.

These are only a few of the startling U-turns taken by "L.A. Law" in the last couple of Thursdays, since the show reverted to its former management. The next six episodes will determine whether the NBC series has a future beyond the current seventh season.

On the day the first retooled episode went on the air, NBC ran a promotion that amounted to a rare admission by a network that it had made disastrous miscalculations: "Remember when 'L.A. Law' was your favorite show? Starting tonight, it will be again."

Don't be too sure. Time left for the turnaround is breathlessly short, and fans who were sorely disappointed by the show's convulsions could very well resist frantic wooing at this late date.

William M. Finkelstein, who created and was an executive

producer of "Civil Wars," has returned to "L.A. Law" with the mission of rescuing it. He had been a writer and supervising producer on the show during several of its award-winning years. This time, he's the executive producer, and his message is clear: back to basics, restore characters, get rid of the pointlessly kooky. A Finkelstein script had Leland (Richard Dysart), senior partner at McKenzie, Brackman, Cheney & Kuzak, spell out what has happened to the show:

"I've sat by and watched as this place has changed. People have dissipated their time and wasted their talent. You have all, to varying degrees, pursued other enterprises and neglected the one that this place was built on: the law. What you do on your own time is your own business, but the work week belongs to TC me. I will expect either a commitment or a resignation."

"L.A. Law," which was created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, a former deputy district attorney, turned into a textbook case of how a series can go wrong.

After its October 1986 debut, in which a distinguished dead partner was found to have been romantically involved with transvestites, the series evolved into a wonderfully clever ensemble drama. A tricky balance was maintained between serious issues, which were often given an unexpected spin, and pushing-the-limits goofiness.

Michael (Harry Hamlin) could court Grace (Susan Dey) in a gorilla costume. Stuart (Michael Tucker) would win Ann (Jill Eikenberry) with the help of a sexual maneuver, never quite explained, called the Venus Butterfly.

The hip and witty tapestry initially began unraveling when several cast regulars decided to move on. The producers responded by putting the tightly knit characters at one another's throats. Michael and the firm became locked in a bitter lawsuit. Having left Michael, Grace was having an affair and a baby with Victor (Jimmy Smits). When not actually screaming, everyone was scowling. The balance was lost.

The series could still be frequently impressive, thanks largely to the contributions of David E. Kelley as executive producer and head writer. New characters were added, by far the most interesting being C. J. (Amanda Donohoe), a chic bisexual who proved too unconventional for network prime time.

But in 1991, Mr. Kelley announced he would not return for a third season. While he went off to CBS, creating "Picket Fences" (which now runs against "L.A. Law" on Thursdays at 10 p.m.), John Tinker and John Masius were brought in as co-executive producers with Rick Wallace. As was demonstrated on "St. Elsewhere," the team of Tinker and Masius has a bent toward irreverence that is far more broad than subtle. A strip club became inevitable.

Increasingly, courtroom aspects of the show were overshadowed by soapy plot developments among the regulars: Roxanne (Susan Ruttan) wanting to have a baby with Tommy (John Spencer); Arnie (Corbin Bernsen) waxing philosophical ("The more material possessions you acquire, the more material possessions you might lose. Is that owning or being owned?").

Obviously hoping that the formula hasn't gone permanently stale, Mr. Finkelstein is saying goodbye to all the curious distractions. It's back to court and to clever situations.

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