For all its excesses, 'Law' built to suit the time it mirrored

May 19, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

I would not have expected it from Corbin Bernsen. But the actor who played womanizing attorney Arnie Becker seems to best understand what "L.A. Law" was mainly about for most of these last eight years.

"This show is one of the clear representatives of what the culmination of the '80s was," Bernsen says of the program, which airs its final episode tonight at 10 on WMAR, Channel 2. "This show is built on characters like myself who were excessively sexual. It's built on excessive greed, money. It's built on the litigious society that we lived in.

"I mean, I don't want to put a year on it. But it represents 1983 to, maybe, '91 or '92," he continues. "And, thus, the demise of the show is that it's antiquated a bit. We're in a new place now."

I came to hate "L.A. Law" during the 1980s. I hated it for the politics and ideology connected to the values Bernsen says the show represented.

But I have also learned over the years that the TV shows we hate are as important to understand as the ones we love. A show must have something going for it to make us love it or hate it; it's the shows we are indifferent to that don't matter.

So I did the interviews, watched the highlight tape from NBC, and then went back to my tapes of early episodes to try to get a more balanced sense of the show, which won the Emmy for Best Drama Series four of its first five years.

The series did not break any new ground. Oh, you'll hear critics talk about "overlapping dialogue" and "multiple storylines." But Steven Bochco, who created "L.A. Law," had already done that -- and, frankly, done it better -- in "Hill Street Blues."

No, the pleasure of "L.A. Law" is found in its moments.

* Remember when Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) reluctantly agreed to baby-sit a client's chimpanzee overnight, and he woke up to find the chimp tearing up his study and shaking with fear?

McKenzie led the chimp over to the couch, where the animal grabbed McKenzie's wedding photo off a table. McKenzie calmed the animal with a wistful reverie about his wedding day and his late wife in one of the weirdest, most gentle, screwiest, sweetest and most touching TV scenes I can remember.

* Not to carry the primate theme too far, but remember Harry Hamlin's Michael Kuzak in the gorilla suit?

* Remember Roxanne Melman (Susan Ruttan) when she came into Arnie's office on behalf of his wife and friends to announce a surprise party and found him making love to a young woman on the couch?

There's a sexual aspect to the last two, but what they are all really about is relationships. All three are about the absurd. They are about how really caring for someone inevitably leads to moments in which intimacy and silliness merge -- as when McKenzie bares his soul at 3 o'clock in the morning to a monkey who's running its fingers through his receding hair.

The decline

Not that sex wasn't a big part of "L.A. Law." Much of the energy of the series was sexual: Stuart (Michael Tucker) and Ann (Jill Eikenberry) and the Venus Butterfly, C. J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) kissing Abby Perkins (Michelle Greene) in TV's first lesbian kiss, and Michael (Hamlin) and Grace (Susan Dey) just about any time they were on-screen together from 1987-'91.

In fact, everyone pretty much agrees that the series declined precipitously when Hamlin and Jimmy Smits left after the '91 season, and Dey went to part-time duty, only to finally sign off in May 1992.

Ultimately, the scene that always comes to mind when I think about "L.A. Law" is that of the boardroom. The conference table was the center of the universe for "L.A. Law," and that meant the show was really about corporate America.

What it told us was that corporate America was presided over by men who were fair and decent, like Leland McKenzie, and that there was a place at the table for everyone -- women (Ann Kelsey and all who followed), African-Americans (Jonathan Rollins), Hispanics (Victor Sifuentes), Jews (Stuart Markowitz), once-radical baby boomers gone yuppie (Michael Kuzak), fundamentalist Christians (Jane Halliday) and gays (C. J. Lamb), not to mention the mentally challenged (Benny Stulwicz).

"L.A. Law" told us this pretty lie at a time when corporations were laying off record numbers of people and "downsizing" the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of American workers thanks to takeovers, mergers and crackpot deals fueled by greed and executed by junk-bond criminals.

'Excessive greed'

There's a touching scene in tonight's show involving McKenzie. Not surprisingly, it takes place around the conference table in the boardroom. It's so well executed that it made me feel for a crazy moment like I was actually going to miss McKenzie, Brackman, et al.

Then, I played back the voice of Bernsen explaining how the show "was about excessive greed" and represented the '80s. I played it to remind myself of why I hated "L.A. Law."

"I'm not sure there's yet a show like it on TV that represents where we're at now," Bernsen went on to say in the interview, which took place after the show's final episode was taped recently.

I'm not sure there is one, either. But I hope, when it does come along, it's as well done as "L.A. Law" was when the series was at its best. I also hope it's more honest and has a less materialistic vision of the good life.

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