Test Pilot: File #25, L.A. Law

Test Pilot #25: L.A. Law

Debut date: September 15, 1986

Series legacy: One of the most popular and well-respected legal dramas of all-time

It’s time for a new theme in the site’s most popular ongoing feature, Test Pilot. The primary reason I started this feature almost a year ago was so that I could have a solid excuse to explore television’s history and fill in some of the blanks in my viewing and critical experiences. From the beginning, I have wanted to talk about the differences between television programs from the past (whenever the heck “the past” is) and the present. The theme we are kicking off today tackles that primary issue head-on. With the 63rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards coming this September, I thought it would be fun, interesting and insightful to look back at the 43rd ceremony held 20 years ago. In particular, my guests and I will watching and writing about the five nominees in the Outstanding Drama Series category from that ceremony in 1991.

Not only is 20 years a nice round number to start from in the theme’s examination of where television drama has been, the quintet of nominees from 1991′s Drama Series category is full of generally well-respected but different series. At that time, Emmy voters considered L.A. LawChina BeachQuantum LeapNorthern Exposure and thirtysomething the best that television drama had to offer. Hopefully taking a look at the kind of programs that the Emmy voters considered “quality” two decades later will shine a light on how the industry and the Emmys have changed — and how they haven’t. Do these series share any interesting qualities? Major differences? Do we have different expectations for greatness today? Is television as a whole that different as it was in 1991? These are the sort of questions and concerns I hope that we can investigate and discuss over the next 10 weeks and five entries.

Here we are folks, the end of yet another Test Pilot theme. Today’s entry will be our final look back at the 1991 Emmys and that year’s Outstanding Drama Series race. Theoretically, we saved the best for last, as L.A. Law took home the award for Outstanding Drama in the fall of 1991 (a win that capped off four wins in five years for the series). L.A. Law was apparently the best drama television had to offer in 1991 and today’s post will hopefully discuss and interrogate that designation as much as possible.

This is one of those instances where neither I nor my guest has seen much of the series whose pilot we are watching and writing about, but that never seems to be a problem anyway. I just wanted you to know, dear reader. In any event, joining me today is Mark Waller. He is a pop culture blogger at TheBlogulator.com and TV Podcaster for Blogulator Radio. He’s also constantly tweeting at @marqualler and you should follow him. Mark, start us off:

I remember the first moment I became a serious TV watcher. In fact, I can look up the date on IMDb of when I became a serious TV watcher: September 19, 1994. I was 11 years old. It was a Sunday night, and all summer, my family had been beaten over the head with promos for a new kind of medical drama that was to air on Thursdays at 10/9c on NBC called ER. I remember soaking in all of the amazing things that happened that my 11-year-old self had never experienced in life before, let alone on a TV series: Nurse Hathaway’s overdose on pills, Dr. Ross’s loosey-goosey style of doctoring, Dr. Carter’s confused first 24 hours working as an ER med student. It was thrilling in the way scripted TV had never been for me before. Throughout the years, from that first season through my first year of college in 2001, I watched every episode of ER. Throughout that time, my eye toward discerning art had continued to develop; some of the more ridiculous plot twists made me begin to roll my eyes at this particular brand of soapy medical procedural, but through it all, that sense of a need to check in with appointment TV, to end a night of great comedy like Friends and Seinfeld with a nightcap of eminently watchable drama like ER, was overwhelming.
Knowing what I know now about the history of NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday block, I imagine the premiere of L.A. Law was met with a similar level of awe to an 11 year old in 1986. Created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, the series succeeded Bochco’s gritty police procedural Hill Street Blues at a time when Blues itself was beginning to sink in the ratings. The 2-hour pilot episode premiered in September of 1986 and quickly led as the nightcap to the blueprint of what I remembered as the Must See TV lineup.

And, watching from 28-year-old eyes, I can completely see why L.A. Law was a success. Its opening scene is immediately grabbing, introducing the viewer to the suave Arnie Becker (played with a devilish wink by Corbin Bernson), the ethical Michael Kuzak (played by the frequent “Most Handsome Man in America” winner Harry Hamlin, who, I admit, is very handsome), the stereotypically “urban” Victor Sifuentes (played by Jimmy Smits, who, perhaps playing off his L.A. Law character, contributed to one of my favorite SNL sketches ever), and a host of other characters. Although today it is commonplace for serialized dramas to contain large ensemble casts, it was somewhat unusual at the time to have such a wide variety of contributing characters.

And, I can see other reasons why it was a success. It has elements of the grittiness of Hill Street Blues, especially when dealing with the fallout of the rape case that McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak take on, but it’s not, y’know, too gritty, in the same way that ER wouldn’t spend too much time on a particular gritty B-plot without delving into the personal romantic lives of the main characters. And, the L.A. Law pilot pokes some fun at its own procedural-mixed-with-soap premise when, during a courtroom scene, the judge pulls the lawyers up to the stand and chastises them for making him spend too much time on their romantic lives like he was on a daytime soap opera. It is that combination of intense, real drama mixed with those daytime soap elements exactly that caused ER to be a much bigger hit than NBC’s first replacement for L.A. LawHomicide: Life on the Street.

The pilot also has a high level of legal jargon thrown into the dialogue, undoubtedly causing the viewer to get swept up in the sophisticated, sexy world that Bochco and Fisher created. It is so commonplace today for series to throw the viewer directly into highly technical dialogue, and the pilot for L.A. Law is no different. Yet, the difference between a series like L.A. Law and The Wire is Bochco and Fisher are not at all interested in letting the viewer need to “sink or swim” the way David Simon is. The highly relatable characters and soap opera conventions ground the action in a way it wouldn’t otherwise be grounded.

So, how does the pilot hold up to today’s standards? Well, for one, it is stylistically dated. The theme song, clothes, hair styles, etc., are all painfully (or, if you’re like me, awesomely) 80s-ish. But, the pilot has a level of wit that would fit on TV anywhere today. No doubt, Bochco has an eye for crackling dialogue that is in many ways timeless. Series like The Good Wife and former L.A. Law writer David E. Kelley’s The Practice definitely owe a debt of gratitude to L.A. Law paving the way with smart writing, deep legal jargon, and standard soap opera methodology.

And, the procedural elements that exist on L.A. Law are evident on pretty much any legal series today. The most buzz-worthy, water-cooler style series combine procedural elements with season-long story arcs the way that L.A. Law did. The template for this type of series may have been created with the less-watched but more influential Hill Street Blues, but it was perfected with L.A. Law. As a result, its fingerprints are everywhere, from one of Bochco’s other highly influential series NYPD Blue, to his criminally underrated Murder One (which was way ahead of its time with the intensely serialized format), to NBC’s ER, to the aforementioned The Good Wife, even to a series like FX’s Justified, which also dabbles in individualized stories and season-long story arcs. No doubt L.A. Law carries with it a sheen that slightly diminishes its artistic merit, but in terms of popular, water-cooler worthy television, the lines of influence are very evident. There is no doubt in my mind that 11-year-old me would have been swept up in the L.A. Law pilot.

–MW

And now, my similarly-newbie perspective:

Have I ever told you guys how much I hate the Emmy voters?

Well, I hate the Emmy voters. Their nominations are often ridiculous, ignorant and laughable and sometimes, their choices for winners are just as bad. But as much as I have gotten frustrated with the television academy in the 21st century, I retroactively sort of hate the late 20th century version of them even more. I understand that there weren’t Mad Mens and Sopranos on in 1991 and that it was really an entirely different era and landscape for television. I laughed a little bit when I realized they picked Quantum Leap (again this is entirely based on the pilot, but that episode/season were nominated), but L.A. Law? Four times in five years, including for the first season (whose submission tape surely included this pilot)? Ugh.

Just like with Leap, I understand the industry insider perspective on why L.A. Law was nominated and awarded so often between 1987 and 1992. One of the series’ creators Steven Boccho was also in charge of Hill Street Blues, one the most beloved and regarded series of all-time. People in the industry knew Boccho and his style and they clearly liked it. Hill Street Blues also won in the Outstanding Drama category four times (1981-1984) and despite a two-year reign for Cagney & Lacey, Boccho-ran series triumphed 8 out of 11 years between 1981 and 1991. That’s a hell of a run.

This is also the kind of series that Emmy voters loved, still love and have no problem showing some love to despite all the drama greatness out there in 2011. Remember all those Boston Legal and James Spader nominations a handful of years ago? The legal drama formula and the courtroom setting can align a showy performance with some equally showy writing and suddenly an impassioned three-minute plea to a jury becomes a moment that voters cannot forget. L.A. Law’s pilot episode might give that “moment” to a defendant instead of an attorney, but the rule still applies. It is basically impossible for me to discover exactly which episodes were submitted that led to Law’s victories in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1991, but I am confident that many of them included these big speeches and probably also featured a guest star or two.

My research also tells me that L.A. Law was always interested in at least addressing many of the big issues of the cultural period, from homosexuality to AIDS to the race riots that took place in California in the early 1990s. Although I would still label the television academy “conservative,” they certainly don’t mind putting forth a façade of liberalness and awareness and so any episode that tackled something like AIDS or gay rights certainly grabbed their attention. When we combine Boccho’s name and pedigree with the series’ setting, formula and desire to be “current,” it makes a substantial amount of sense why the Emmy voters found L.A. Law so darn appealing 20-odd years ago.

But of course, that doesn’t make L.A. Law worthy of such praise and accomplishments. This two-hour pilot is exactly what I expected it to be – showy, slick, glossy and tonally diverse – and that is not particularly good news. In a lot of ways, Law takes the few things I didn’t quite love about the first few episodes of Hill Street Blues, ramps them up even more and then strips away the kind of gritty complexity that made that first season of HSB so compelling and engaging. What’s left isn’t completely terrible for reasons that I will get to it in a moment, but L.A. Law certainly pales in comparison to Hill Street (although what doesn’t?).

Steven Boccho likes to create situations where the tone jumps from dreadfully serious to absurd and supposedly absurdly funny and in HSB, those clashes felt more organic to the characters and the story and even then, the series had to grow into it. Belker’s biting and barking and generally weird behavior caught me off-guard in some early Hill Street episodes (I believe it was the second and third efforts), primarily because it played as if Boccho was trying too hard to make his series different from all the other police dramas on the air at the time. The kind of tonal balance he was trying to pull off was and still is difficult to do and in the early going, Boccho failed.

But eventually, Boccho made the humor work, but mostly because he and the other HSB writers figured out a way to make it flow naturally from the situations and reactions of the characters in the world. Once Hill Street Station felt like a real place and the characters were solidly-formed, Goldblume’s obsession with saving stray pets, Phil’s romantic troubles and even Belker’s zaniness worked. HSB’s characters were complex enough that they weren’t defined by their occasional funny and wonky behavior (Belker came the closest, though).

The L.A. Law pilot tells me that Boccho didn’t see the same issues I did with the first few post-pilot episodes of Hill Street Blues (or that he didn’t care because he was Steven freaking Boccho). Although Law doesn’t feature so many characters with obvious “THIS IS FUNNY” quirks, the pilot’s opening sequence sets an absurdist tone that I could have done without. Within five minutes, Corbin Bersen’s Arnie is held at gun-point and shot at (the gun is fake, of course) and partner Norman Chaney dies of a heart attack while gripping a tax code manual (because he’s so good!). As I watched this scene I couldn’t stop picturing how it would play on ABC in 2011, complete with the bouncy, quirky “LOL!” music. The opening sequence is nearly topped by a scene in the early part of hour two where it is revealed that Chaney was actually a closet homosexual who had a transsexual companion. Oh yeah, this is revealed by said companion. At Chaney’s funeral.

I understand the desire to mix things up tonally, but L.A. Law pushes this too far, too quickly and it takes away from the rest of the episode, which is just fine for a legal procedural pilot. None of the characters are particularly likable outside of Jimmy Smits’ Victor Sifuentes (so much so that I wish the pilot would have been told from his perspective as he made the decision to join the firm) and the constant bickering over office space and other frivolous things makes them look like vapid vessels for sexually-charged dialogue. The procedural work itself is fine, albeit somewhat stale, though I think that stems from the two-hour running time. I’m not sure we needed Arnie’s divorce case to extend across two episodes. And as I discussed earlier, there is of course a “big speech” moment that works at first, but loses its impact by the time Harry Hamlin’s Michael is hugging the defendant by the end of hour two. Much like the “comedy” sequences, the drama veers towards over-heightened melodramatics and histrionics that I would prefer not to have in my legal dramas.

Nevertheless, it does at times feel like this is all intentional. L.A. Law’s pilot works in extremes and excess, whether in regards to supposed emotional beats, gun gags, sexual content or the vapidity of the characters. I have heard that the series is basically the epitome of the 1980s on television and that viewpoint makes a lot of sense after watching this initial offering. If I’m supposed to dislike all of these people and scoff at their posturing over office space and parking spots and sigh at how some of them actually do care, then L.A. Law is a lovely piece of cultural history. I quite like how it contrasts with the first series we discussed in this theme, thirtysomething. The hyper-earnest characters in that series were too afraid that they were becoming the kinds of people that populate L.A. Law’s world and said people in L.A. Law are too busy making money and living the high life to give a crap. They’ve comprised and thrown away their counter-culture ideals, but they do not care.

But let me be clear: Viewing L.A. Law as a purposefully heightened and stylized time capsule of the generally terrible 1980s doesn’t necessarily mean that this pilot randomly becomes good. And armed with the knowledge that the series only became more absurd, surreal and ridiculous as time passed (and got David E. Kelley his start on television), I have even less patience for L.A. Law. When you’re known primarily for a scene where a character meets her demise by falling down an elevator shaft, I can never, ever take you seriously. Mark alluded to Law’s impact on The Good Wife and while I don’t fully disagree with that assertion, this pilot is like The Good Wife if it instantly lost control of its center character, political interest and tonal shifts. L.A. Law is the Hugo Chavez episode of The Good Wife only worse.

Looking over all five entries we did in this theme, I can’t help but think that we have it much better today. While I wouldn’t call any of the five 1991 Outstanding Drama Series nominees “terrible,” it is readily apparent that television and therefore the Emmys have changed their focus in the 20 years since L.A. Law defeated Northern Exposure, thirtysomething, China Beach and Quantum Leap and won its fourth Outstanding Drama Series title. Television gives us better and now we expect better – which clearly makes it difficult for me to embrace these pilots/series since I’m a product of this era of television – and I think we are all better off.

The early 1990s feels like a weird time for television drama. Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere debuted in the prior decade and brought sweeping changes and innovations with them, opening the medium up for more experimentation and quality storytelling within traditional genres and formats. I’m not sure something like China Beach happens without Hill Street Blues. Although none of these pilots reaches the same heights as the first episode of HSB and a few of them are kind of bad, their ability to present something new or told in a novel way is totally respectable. This is certainly an eclectic quintet of television programs. And there is no question that these five set the table for the many, better series that came later and learned for their mistakes. These series might not fit our revised, modern definitions of quality, but they helped define those terms to begin with and that makes them valuable pieces of television’s history.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: Maybe slightly overrated and tonally off-kilter and absurd, but kind of gloriously so

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