On "L.A. Law" the name of the game is realism, telling it like it really is in a high-powered law firm. Or, more precisely, attempting to and failing. In fact, the series' central problem -- ironic in light of its avowed effort to create a sharp, dramatic portrayal of real life -- is the striking absence of realism. What we get in its place is hokey imitation. And this is "L.A.'s" overriding fault.
Not coincidentally, producers Steve Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher were the creators of two hits whose dramatic calling cards were also "realism": "Hill Street Blues" and "Cagney & Lacey," respectively.
"L.A. Law" is the hottest new show to debut this past season and has received more kudos and accolades and praise than any TV show in recent memory.
You wonder why anyone would care about the day-to-day lives of Los Angeles attorneys, a spectrum of contemporary stereotypes. There's the sleazy, cynical but oh-so-attractive divorce lawyer, Arnie Becker (Corbin Bersen). And there's Douglas Brackman Jr. (Alan Rachins), the tightwad senior partner obsessed with ledgers and details, who moonlights as a slumlord. And of course there's the company do-gooder, Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry), among many others.
Issues are topical, relentlessly so, self-consciously so. And our protagonists constantly grapple with complex moral dilemmas: AIDS, mercy killing, rape, capital punishment, mentally retarded killers, pro bono cases, and drug companies that manufacture toxic pharmaceuticals.
And there are the details -- lots and lots of details -- intended to flesh out the sense of reality in the world of yuppie lawyers. Five or six or seven stories run concurrently and bristle with bizarre occurrences and unaccounted-for snippets coming from nowhere and going nowhere, all designed to function as a backdrop of bustling daily life and make it feel real. It doesn't.
"L.A. Law's" alleged strong point is ultimately its Achilles' heel.
Slumlord Brackman encounters his troubled wife in a restaurant. He's embroiled with tenants who are suing him. Mrs. Brackman is a bored princess of a wife. It is her 41st birthday and she has been kept waiting in the restaurant. As their tense little dinner progresses, it soon becomes obvious that the marriage is disintegrating and she is wallowing in self-pity. "I don't want to end up divorced, old, poor, unwanted and working in a department store," she cries out, "with varicose veins."
In a moment, she is sobbing loudly and diners are glancing in her direction. As Brackman tries to quiet her, she jumps to her feet and sings a rock tune of the early '60s, "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to," which in turn leads into a teary rendition of "Happy Birthday to Me!"
The writers are trying to create both a funny and poignant scene that reflects the complexity of life. Neither Brackman nor his wife are especially appealing -- they are in fact embodiments of ugly cliche's -- but the audience is supposed to feel some degree of pathos for these feckless people. The scene is simply awkward, odd, jarring and embarrassing in its miscalculation.
But it's more than a miscalculation. The problem is the writers' obsessive idea that the startling and tacky somehow suggest profound levels of honesty and insight.
Another example: In the season's opening episode, senior partner Cheney dies in his office late one Friday night. By the time his body is discovered Monday, slumped over a plate of beans, rigor mortis has set in, and there's difficulty in getting the twisted corpse through the office door. Several attorneys who are witnessing this scene can barely restrain their titters. By he time the body is removed they are doubled over with hilarity. In the face of existential nervousness, it is true, one may laugh a little. But here, the laughter is loud and satisfied, and there's no indication that these jovial young lawyers are nervous at all. They are simply entertained in the face of this macabre event.
Precisely because dramatic tradition, and normal human response, dictate some expression of sadness or distress in the face of death, whatever its comic elements, the writer have turned that convention on its head, in the apparent belief that this unexpected reaction is somehow more true to life.
The irony here is that after only a few sittings the viewer can almost anticipate who will do what or how the story will evolve on the basis of the most unlikely development. Contrary to the writers' intention, predictability hasn't disappeared from the show. One set of conventions has simply been substituted for another.
Let's look at a final example, one in which the writers fail in their attempt at lightness of touch while hinting at sadness: attorney Victor Sifuentes' (Jimmy Smits) sexual encounter with a flaky, but very attractive dentist whom he represented in a malpractice suit. Until the love-making begins, the audience is led to believe that this woman is Ms. Perfect. On "L.A. Law" that's probably a tip-off that the character has a borderline personality if she's not downright nuts.
After a candlelit dinner in Sifuentes' apartment, the dentist offers to do something special for him. In the next scene, Sifuentes is propped up in a chair, mouth open, while she is happily cleaning his teeth. "You should floss more," she tells him. "Your gums are bleeding. Spit."
Come, now. Even if this scene were mildly amusing, and not simply peculiar, the question remains, what's the point?
In Mel Brooks' hands, it would advance the story and be stylistically consistent. On "L.A. Law" stylistic consistency has died along with the single story.
And that's the other big problem with this much-touted series: There's just too much going on. Dramatic stories and comic stories and farcical stories and poignant stories stumble over each other, making sluggish storytelling and trivializing potential drama. Courtroom drama is endlessly interspersed with distracting scenes from other storylines. A rough count suggests there may be up to 15 anecdotal bleeps in every episode.
On occasion these bleeps take center stage. A fisherman has had his boat seized by the IRS on the grounds that he's allegedly transporting drugs. There is no solid evidence for these charges and the man contacts a lawyer. He needs his boat to earn a living and it looks as if the boat is going to be held for a long time. This, it would seem, is the major story.
On "L.A. Law" the fisherman's plight quickly fades into the background. In its place the audience is treated to attorneys Kelsey and Markowitz (Michael Tucker) hiking in the forest. He doesn't want to go camping. She does. They fight about it. He buys out the sports store (this is supposed to be whimsical). Laden with equipment, they wander around in the woods. Neither is having a good time. They forget to bring toilet paper. She uses a leaf of poison ivy, suffers the reaction and can barely walk. Next scene: A fully serviced limousine picks them up and takes them to a hotel in Las Vegas.
This meaningless distraction that fills much of the hour is not funny and tells us nothing new. But even more serious is this viewer's underlying suspicion that the actors or writers or producers may have had a similar experience on a camping trip and it was simply included not only as an "in" joke but as a further expression of realism. This event happened to someone, or could have. So why not put it here?
In the end, one feels a kind of yearning for those fast-moving TV courtroom dramas, devoid of such "realistic detail," such as "Perry Mason" or "Matlock." So Matlock wears a light suit -- to show how good and pure he is -- and he always corners the guilty party. Yes, it's simple-minded, but within its framework it's well-done and entertaining.
As for complexity, nuance and shading, what was wrong with "The Defenders"? Starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, this courtroom drama of the early and mid-'60s was a landmark program in many ways. It was one of the few TV series of the period to deal with emotionally charged issues -- civil disobedience, black-listing and euthanasia. The lawyers did not always win their cases, and on occasion they even vigorously defended a man they believed was innocent, only to discover he was guilty. "The Defenders" succeeded where "L.A. Law" has failed. The earlier series was topical, occasionally controversial, realistic and, at the same time, maintained focus and narrative drive.
A modest proposal: Scrap "L.A. Law" and bring back "The Defenders."
Simi Horwitz is a New York freelance writer.