"L.A. Law" is at a crossroads.
NBC's Emmy-winning series is airing its 100th episode this Thursday. (February's 100th-episode anniversary special with Jane Pauley was a ratings ploy. It jumped the gun by five episodes--just in time for the crucial sweeps period.)
The drama also is gearing up for the departure of two pivotal people, actress Susan Dey (Grace Van Owen) and executive producer and head writer David E. Kelley, who has a four-year development deal with Twentieth Television. He will remain as executive consultant on the series. And Dey probably won't be the only actor leaving: Word is she will be joined by Harry Hamlin (Michael Kuzak) and Jimmy Smits (Victor Sifuentes). The official word: "The door is open to both" to return.
Whither "L.A. Law" without three of its most popular stars and without Emmy-winner Kelley, who has written an amazing two-thirds of "L.A. Law's" episodes?
Executive producer Rick Wallace believes the show's fans aren't fickle. And, if he's worried, he's keeping his fears to himself.
"This will be our sixth year next year," he said. "If we are not going to take chances now, we are just going to flatten out."
Two seasons ago "L.A. Law" survived when co-creator and executive producer Steven Bochco stepped down to form his own production company. He has remained, though, as an executive consultant on the series. Kelley, who practiced as a litigator for three years in Boston, began as the story editor five years ago and quickly became co-producer and then supervising producer. Under Kelley's guidance, Wallace said, the series changed direction.
"The first three years of the show under Steven's tutelage and guidance was 65% relationship and 35% legal," Wallace said. "What's happened since David has taken over is that it went the other way and it become more like 65% legal and 35% relationship."
Some characters and stories end up taking on a life of their own. Rosalind Shays, the powerful female attorney brought in to stir things up at McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, Kuzak and Becker last season, still plays an important part on the series.
"The character took such a hold," Kelley said. "We developed such an attachment to the character, we were coming up with different story lines to tell that had nothing to do with our original design."
This year, Kelley and Wallace have noticed viewers have been responding to "L.A. Law" as if it were the hot new kid on the block, not a series in its fifth season.
"L.A. Law" met controversy head-on in January when Grace Van Owen defended a young U.S. soldier at his court-martial case for disobeying orders during the 1989 Panama invasion. The episode was telecast a week after the Persian Gulf War started.
Another episode this year that surprised viewers was when McKenzie associates C. J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) and Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) kissed after going out to dinner.
Surprisingly, Wallace said, very few viewers voiced displeasure or shock with the scene. "It's the greatest thrill when people talk about the show," Kelley said. "Any show, if it gets to be in the fifth year, (the audience) may still be watching, but they have stopped talking about it. It's a challenge for us to fool our audience with twists and turns."
Kelley said attorneys generally embrace the show. "We have critics. We encourage them to take their whacks at us," he said. "The truth is we have done very very few things on 'L.A. Law' that could not happen. We do a lot of things that typically do not happen. We send every script to our legal consultants and they will jump on my head if I have taken too big a license."
This season, "L.A. Law" has introduced three new lawyers: Amanda Donohoe as the rather outrageous Brit C. J. Lamb, John Spencer as the slightly shady Tommy Mullaney and Cecil Hoffmann as Mullaney's ex-wife, assistant district attorney Zoey Clemmons.
Both Kelley and Wallace insist the trio were not added to replace any existing regular.
"The truth is when the show gets into its fifth and sixth year, you need new people," Kelley said. "We will certainly miss Susan, and Jimmy and Harry if they are not there. They are vital parts of our show, but the new people we have brought in have infused a great deal of new energy onto the set and into us as writers."
Newcomer Spencer said it is a "little scary" thinking about the show without key players such as Dey and Kelley.
"David has done so much of my writing," Spencer said. "But what is amazing about 'L.A. Law' is that I don't think we have any stars. I don't mean that in an egoless way. It has some of the best ensemble acting on TV. But no one is bigger than that little license plate logo. So as much as I love everybody, including myself, I don't think anyone is irreplaceable."
"L.A. Law" has five more episodes to air this season after Thursday. Kelley and Wallace said the status of Dey, Hamlin and Smits will be resolved in the season finale.
"I have had one story line in my pocket for a while, and we are actually in the process of doing that story line, which will unfold over several episodes," Kelley said. "I am not going to give it away, but it is constant with the spirit and history of the show. If and when they leave I don't think the way they leave will shock the sensibilities of 'L.A. Law' viewers."
"Just wait till you see what's going to happen," Wallace said.
"L.A. Law" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.