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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Nbc's New 'L.a. Law': The Verdict Is Great

September 15, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The scene is a courtroom where a terminally ill woman who was raped by three youths is now being raped again--this time by the law.

An attorney for one of the rapists is mercilessly grilling the weakened victim, twisting her testimony, making it seem that instead of being raped, she was a seductress out for one last fling before dying of leukemia.

Suddenly the woman (exquisitely played by Alfre Woodard) lashes out at the court, delivering a desperate, outraged, impassioned speech against injustice that simply puts you away. It's high-pitched, unforgettable, knockout, electrifying TV.

There should be a law requiring more series like NBC's new "L.A. Law." Its premiere, at 9 tonight on Channels 4, 36 and 39, immediately raises the level of the fall season about a dozen notches.

Another of NBC's "sneak previews," tonight's two-hour pilot will be repeated at 11:30 p.m. Sept. 27 before the hourlong "L.A. Law" moves into its regular 10 p.m. Friday time slot Oct. 3, following "Miami Vice."

Though vastly different in tone and texture, "L.A. Law" honors the tradition of that fine old CBS courtroom series of the 1960s, "The Defenders."

Otherwise, it has its ensemble roots in "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere." Created by Steven Bochco (who co-created "Hill Street Blues") and Terry Louise Fisher (a former Los Angeles County prosecutor and "Cagney & Lacey" producer), it interweaves the professional and private lives at a full-service Century City law firm where principles and profits often coexist uneasily. In most cases, the characters of "L.A. Law" are unheroic.

The firm--with its intrigues and clashing egos, ambitions and ethical standards--is the plot, generating a myriad of sub-stories, some continuing over several episodes.

The well-acted premiere (written by Bochco and Fisher and directed by co-executive producer Gregory Hoblit, another "Hill Street Blues" alumnus), ranges from the intense, raw melodrama of that courtroom scene to the dark humor associated with the death of a senior partner who died at his desk.

"I got dibs on his office," says opportunistic attorney Arnold Becker (Corbin Bernsen) as Norman Chaney's corpse is carted off in an opening scene. At his funeral, Chaney is eulogized by senior partner Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) as someone who "knew everything there was to know about tax law."

Meanwhile:

Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin) has an ethical crisis over defending one of the rapists, who happens to be the son of one of the firm's biggest clients. Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry), the firm's hard-line moralist, opposes an insurance company's efforts to underpay an impoverished domestic. Profit-minded Douglas Brackman Jr. (Alan Rachins) disapproves of Kelsey's altruism. Becker uses shoddy tactics to push a client toward demanding a higher divorce settlement from her husband. And McKenzie drops in every so often to implant a word of wisdom.

Like the lawyers it depicts, tonight's premiere is far from perfect. Woodard's rape victim becomes part of a flawed, contrived ending that should have been avoided. And the rigidly money-minded Brackman is as overdrawn as some of the continuing "Hill Street Blues" characters have been at various times.

"L.A. Law," though, is further proof of Bochco's talent and zest for intelligent, stimulating, pertinent TV, and of NBC's commitment to a prime-time schedule that accommodates high standards. Bring on those Friday nights.

Hold back "Jack and Mike."

This clunking dramatic series, which premieres with a 90-minute episode at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday on ABC, is bad enough on its own, without any comparisons. Imagine what a brick it will be in its regular 10 p.m. time slot, following that nifty, high-stepping "Moonlighting."

In writing this review, I couldn't help being inspired by the moving words of Jackie Shea (Shelley Hack), the hard-hitting Chicago newspaper columnist married to restaurateur Mike Brennan (Tom Mason) in "Jack and Mike":

"I'm in this business 'cause I need to know why. I gotta find out the truth and write it."

It takes about 30 seconds to learn the truth about "Jack and Mike," whose executive producer is David Gerber. Stick around longer, though, for the full comedic impact of seeing Mike open his new restaurant and Jackie open her soft heart and hard-hitting column to an accused rapist who claims he's innocent. Jackie is taking a big chance because somebody (gulp) doesn't want her to find out the truth.

You'll love the realism.

--Someone tries to scare Jackie off by putting a bullet in Mike's meat. Shrewdly, he doesn't notify the cops.

--At 4 p.m., her deadline, Jackie rushes into the office and announces she will substitute another column later, then rushes off to the opening of Mike's new restaurant.

--Jackie knows she's in danger, so she cleverly writes the column that reveals all in a darkened newsroom--alone.

Mason is an able actor who simply goes nowhere in this nowhere premiere. Hack has improved since her "Charlie's Angels" days, but is unconvincing as Jackie and still reminds you of the low, humming background music in an elevator.

There! I've found out the truth and written it.

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