The first season of L.A. Law, now available on DVD, was not the series’ best. The elite law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, And Kuzak had yet to reach the kind of whacked-out highs exemplified by David E. Kelley’s stint as showrunner. (Kelley was only a staff writer for season one.) Still, the first season features such famous L.A. Law devices as the Venus Butterfly (an unspeakable sex act) and a man tearing a woman away from her wedding while he’s wearing an ape suit. It’s not as if the show started out stolid and got progressively crazier. It was that way to begin with.
Yet L.A. Law was such a seismic event in the late 1980s TV landscape that it inspired many other legal series. Where the show was once seen as hugely original for abandoning a case-of-the-week structure in favor of ongoing legal and personal storylines—while simultaneously delving into the minutiae of the legal profession—it’s since been bested by its own descendants at both of those games. The Practice (created by Kelley), Damages, and The Good Wife trust that the audience has some working knowledge of how these sorts of shows work. That’s knowledge L.A. Law gave the audience in the first place, but watching the first season is like going back to do simple addition and subtraction problems after learning how to do algebra: Everything feels painfully basic.
The ’80s were a rich time for TV drama, as the format broke off the shackles of episodic structure and made tentative stabs toward serialization, inspired by the huge success of Dallas and the creative lightning strike that was Hill Street Blues. (Hill Street and L.A. Law share a co-creator in Steven Bochco, perhaps the most important single figure in the history of American TV drama.) At its base, L.A. Law aimed to extend to the legal drama the same sorts of serialized story and character arcs that Hill Street and St. Elsewhere brought to their genres. It also wanted to take a page from Elsewhere in possessing a healthy sense of humor about its own ridiculousness, which may be why one season-one episode features a lengthy slow-motion shot of a vial of bull semen flying across a courtroom.
Hill Street Blues, which comes to DVD later this year, still has the advantage of being hugely influential and historically significant, while St. Elsewhere has held up much better than its ’80s workplace drama kin. Compared to those two, L.A. Law is a little tired and possessed of increasingly stilted sexual politics. It won four Emmys for best drama series, beating shows that have aged much better—including China Beach, Moonlighting, and Twin Peaks—but it now plays mainly as a time capsule of what was scandalous and shocking in 1986. The pilot encapsulates this dichotomy handily: A trans woman is revealed to have been a dead man’s lover, and she’s described as “a gay man” and subjected to a fair amount of snickering about genitalia. Yet at the same time, the program finds its way to feeling empathy for her plight. At all turns, the program is obsessed with people’s private sex lives, as if titillation will patch over rough storytelling.
This desire to have it both ways cuts through L.A. Law at every turn. The program was a product of largely liberal writers, but it’s also a celebration of Reagan-era excess that’s uneasy about criticizing economic conservatism too harshly. Shows set in the legal sphere often live and die by their political arguments, but L.A. Law is constantly presenting both sides, then resolving issues with, “Isn’t this a pickle?” before everybody heads off for a laugh or two. One first-season episode takes on euthanasia as an issue truly without good solutions, since there are strong arguments to be made on either side, but this kind of complexity—which would be the stock-in-trade of later legal dramas—is notably lacking elsewhere. The series is also possessed of a dreadfully slow pace in its editing and dialogue in these first 23 episodes, though that would pick up in later years.
Yet these ’80s workplace dramas and their smorgasbord approach to episodic construction are something to behold. Stories on L.A. Law might run for weeks on end, or they might peter out after one or two episodes, only to return with a vengeance a few episodes later. The series mixes deeply personal stories with stories about social issues. It places more humorous tales next to serious examinations of legal jurisprudence. It truly wants to offer something for everyone in every episode, and even when one or two or three storylines aren’t working, there’s one somewhere else that’s lots of fun.
The series has a large enough ensemble cast to get away with this. Unfortunately, the series’ two main characters, Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin) and Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey), have a relationship that now plays as terminally dull, because the characters are both so virtuous to a fault. More fun are figures like Corbin Bernsen’s Arnie Becker, a divorce attorney and swinging cad with occasional crises of conscience, or Alan Rachins’ Doug Brackman, who’s a huge dick and immensely entertaining as such. Jill Eikenberry quietly charts out relatively unexplored territory for the time period as a woman in her mid-30s who’s unapologetic about having a career instead of a family, and Richard Dysart is the warm, paternalistic figure every show like this needs.
L.A. Law is a misguided tonal mishmash at best and unbelievably quaint at worst. But looking at the series with the eyes of the ’80s drama fan, starved for something at once capable of ratings and critical success, the series starts to seem more vital. Look through that perspective long enough, and the show is more daring than it would be if it came to the air now. It’s the fate of so many series like this that they eventually become hard to take, since so many better series come along later and pillage them for parts. L.A. Law might be most interesting when looked at as inspiration for later shows, but that doesn’t mean it lacks moments when it shines of its own accord.
The one episode you must watch: “The Venus Butterfly” won an Emmy for writing and introduced television to an apparently unspeakable sexual act that, in the wrong hands, could reduce a woman to sexual slavery. It’s probably the best-balanced episode of the season, with both comedy and drama working well in tandem, and it offers a nice look at the show at its best and worst.