Thursday, 26 January 2012

An open and shut case

We’ve all heard the joke about 5,000 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean. It’s as old as the one about jaywalking poultry, but it still gets repeated because there are few careers as universally reviled as the legal profession. So when Stephen Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher came up with the idea of a new drama series set in a Los Angeles law firm, it must have been a pretty tough pitch, like trying to sell in a slapstick sitcom about Natasha Kampusch. 

And yet, somehow, they managed to convince NBC to take a punt on their idea, turning LA Law into a ratings winner that ran for eight years. Making its debut at the peak of eighties consumerism, it would have been easy for the show to disappear up its own Hugo Boss-clad arsehole, reveling in the rampant capitalism that epitomised the decade of grasping self-interest. Instead, Bochco and Fisher used the premise to explore a previously unseen side of the legal system, focusing on what happened after Cagney & Lacey or TJ Hooker rolled up their crime scene tape and headed out in search of donuts.

For the first time, audiences were invited into the luxuriously appointed boardrooms (with carpeted walls, no less), and introduced to a bewildering new lexicon of continuances, objections and depositions. The partners and clerks at McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak didn’t just concentrate on flashy, high-profile murder cases either. Sleazy, womanising opportunist Arnie Becker exposed the intricacies of California divorce law, whilst Stuart Markowitz attempted to make tax consultancy sound exciting. And somehow, it all coalesced into a satisfying and surprising whole.

Back in the mid-eighties, the main difference between soaps and long-running dramas, was that the former focused on continuing story arcs, whereas the latter had a more episodic, issue-of-the-week structure. LA Law represented a sophisticated merging of the two, balancing ongoing character development,with individual cases that were often plucked straight from the news headlines. This was based on a model that Bochco had originated with his previous hit Hill Street Blues, another complex multi-strand drama with an extensive cast of regular characters.

The topicality of the stories meant that, even in the pilot, LA Law was willing to tackle the kind of challenging topics that usually only ever featured on the nightly news. The first episode featured the improbably handsome hero Michael Kuzak defending three young men accused of gang-raping a woman dying of leukaemia. After years of watching Joan Collins and Linda Evans tearing off each other’s clip-on earrings, such harsh realities must have been quite a bitter pill for unsuspecting viewers. Similarly, the revelation that one of the women in the typing pool was a pre-operative transsexual, in a secret affair with the senior partner whose death kicked off the series, introduced a discussion of homophobia in the workplace that was years ahead of its time. 

Over the years, the show managed to tackle pretty much every major societal issue and taboo, from incest and child abuse to abortion and the LA race riots. Interestingly, the show only found itself in hot water once, when conservative critics got upset about a 'lesbian kiss' between bland divorcee Abby Perkins, and the free-spirited bisexual CJ Lamb. Although chaste and innocent by today's standards, at the time Amanda Donahoe's same-sex smooch was the first ever kiss between two women on network TV. Despite the short-lived outrage, the show inadvertently kicked off a new TV trend, as opportunistic show runners threw in a girl-on-girl snog to bump up the ratings, with the New York Times concluding that "kisses between women are perfect sweeps stunts". 

The legacy of LA Law can also be seen in other aspects of modern TV, not least in Aaron Sorkin's patented 'walk and talk' scenes, where two characters cover 800 yards and about 15 pages of dialogue in a single take. Speaking of The West Wing, it's worth remembering that the impeccable liberal credentials of President Jed Bartlet can be traced directly back to the informed benevolence of pater familias Leland McKenzie.

For a drama that confidently tackled every thorny subject imaginable, the writers never lost sight of the need to entertain, even managing to build half a season of plotting around an elaborate inside joke. The writers had joshed each other for a while that, in soap operas, the easiest way to write out a character was to drop them down a lift shaft. So when they decided that passive-aggressive villainess Rosalind Shays (imagine Nurse Ratched in an $800 suit) had outlived her usefulness, they simply opened the elevator doors and let her plunge to her death. The character's shocking exit saw that installment voted into the top 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time in TV Guide. 

The show also achieved notoriety by inventing the Venus Butterfly - an imaginary sex act that was referenced in an early episode, but never explicitly explained. In the years that followed, the studio was inundated with letters and calls from fans who were determined to find out about the mysterious technique that helped a short, fat, balding tax lawyer land himself such a hot wife. Playboy even ran a special feature speculating what the act entailed, and the Venus Butterfly has subsequently appeared in everything from TV show Rescue Me, to issue 298 of The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter Parker, you dirty little fucker. 

Admittedly, the show has aged badly in some areas, particularly in the fashion and styling of its well-heeled cast. The outfits might have been sourced on Rodeo Drive, but the hairdos owed more to Blue Circle. And since everyone wore such huge shoulder-pads, the seduction scenes often looked more like two linebackers clashing at an NFL game. These romantic clinches, which occurred frequently during the show’s run, convinced a generation that a kiss was meaningless unless it took place next to a venetian blind, accompanied by the intermittent shrieks of a saxophone solo. 

This week, LA Law's debut season finally made it to DVD, after over a decade of passionate lobbying from fans. Best of all, it's currently only available in the UK. As distributors Revelation Films have already lined up seasons two and three for later in the year, now's the perfect time to catch up on one of the best loved TV shows of all time. And if you don't like it, sue me. 

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