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The Wheels of Justice : 'L.A. Law' keeps the surprises coming, even in the face of losing key people

March 24, 1991|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"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 popular 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. 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.

Dey made her plans public at the beginning of the season.

"Jimmy's intentions were pretty clear at the beginning of the year," executive producer Rick Wallace said. "We had a pretty good sense that if he came back (next season), it would be on a limited basis. Harry's situation is more recent. I think it would be just great if the writers could come up with a storyline next year so one or more could come back (on a limited basis)."

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?

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."

To Wallace, the real stars of the show are the writers. "Bottom line, the writing is the most important thing. The show was set up as an ensemble show that was dependent, first on the writing and then on the performances, characters and interactions," he said.

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 Kelly'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."

"I think I am more on my turf in the legal area," Kelley said. "I am probably more fascinated with the show's potential to explore legal issues. Our show basically is about the workplace. This is a show about people, but people who are lawyers. I think the potential for drama and challenging intellectual issues is greater with legal stories than with personal stories."

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 storylines 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.

"There was a lot of buzz and feedback on the first two episodes of the season when Rosalind sued the firm," Kelley said. "That was juicy, scandalous kind of fun."

On a more serious vein, "L.A. Law" met controversy head-on in January when Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey) defended a young U.S. soldier at his court-martial case for disobeying orders during the Panama invasion. The episode was telecast a week after the Persian Gulf War started.

"The next day, we received calls here in the office about 10-to-1 in favor of NBC's airing the episode," Wallace said. "NBC's were more than that opposed. The public reaction was so strong that NBC issued a response that stated that while the show had been conceived and written four or five weeks before the Jan. 15 deadline, they nonetheless felt that perhaps the airing of it was inappropriate given the events in the Persian Gulf."

"That was really a classic 'L.A. Law' story in that both sides were very strong sides," Kelley said. "It's very easy to voice strong and persuasive arguments on both sides of the fence. We are grateful NBC decided to air it. I don't think you ever should pull an episode."

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.

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