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Steven Bochco on the Case : 'L.A. Law' Co-Creator Returns to Fine-Tune Troubled Series

April 02, 1992|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The two most recent episodes of "L.A. Law" featured stories about computer-generated pictures of sexual positions, Arnie Becker's twisted testicle, a crooked judge, the rape trial of a baseball star who doesn't know the meaning of the word no and a case involving Nazi experiments on live human beings.

Steven Bochco is back in charge.

"One of the things that I did find generally missing in the early going of this season was that the fun to a significant degree had been lost in 'L.A. Law,' " said Bochco, the co-creator of the NBC legal drama, who had not participated in the day-to-day operations of the show for 2 1/2 years.

"The stories felt a little serious, a little too earnest," he said. "Not that there's anything wrong with a serious story, but we had always counterbalanced them with lighter material. And I thought we lost that."

Bochco's return to the series that he created with Terry Louise Fisher as an encore to "Hill Street Blues" six years ago was unexpected. He had relinquished the reins in 1989 to found his own production company and pursue a $50-million, 10-series deal with ABC. Though he retained "executive consultant" credit on "L.A. Law" and offered advice on scripts, he basically spent all of his time on his ABC shows: "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "Cop Rock," "Capitol Critters," "Civil Wars" and next season's "NYPD Blues."

"L.A. Law" had rolled along triumphantly without him, consistently finishing high in the ratings and winning the Emmy as TV's top drama series for the past three years. But in this, its sixth season, "L.A. Law" stumbled so badly that disappointed TV critics wrote it off as "L.A. Lost," some even suggesting that is was time for the firm of McKenzie, Brackman to go "belly up." The show was boring. The fun was gone. The ratings dipped.

Patricia Green, who previously had been the show's supervising producer and who then, at the behest of Bochco, took over as executive producer this season, resigned in January--"overwhelmed," Bochco said, by a job she did not want and the pressure of trying to live up to the show's storied past.

Feeling responsible to Green for encouraging her to take the job against her better judgment, and to the studio, Twentieth Television, which helps bankroll his productions for ABC, Bochco agreed to jump back in to guide the series through the final eight episodes of this season. (Rick Wallace, who supervised the production of the show while Green oversaw the writing, remained as the other executive producer.)

The third of these restyled episodes airs April 16. Tonight's episode is a repeat from earlier in the season.

"I don't think I had to twist his arm," said Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment. "Steven feels a deep affection and responsibility for the show. I think he really loves it. I certainly said we need you, but I didn't sense any hesitancy."

"When it is perceived that a show has gone awry, the pressure is staggering and, as a writer caught in that storm, it feels like you are being attacked by jackals," Bochco said in an interview this week. "The press is on your ass. The studio is on your ass. The network is on your ass. Adoring fans who have always loved the show are now writing letters that aren't just critical, they're vicious. I got a letter the other day that was so mean and petulant and nasty, it was as if the guy had been personally assaulted."

What went wrong?

Simply, the show failed to weather a number of key defections. David Kelley, the attorney-turned-writer whom Bochco groomed to run the show after his departure, left at the end of last season to create his own series for CBS. William Finkelstein, another lawyer who wrote many of the scripts with Kelley during the show's heyday, had jumped ship the previous year to work with Bochco on "Cop Rock" and "Civil Wars." Though this year's writing staff includes a couple of attorneys, the head writers, including Green, had no legal experience and little access to expert attorney-writers such as Kelley, and were, therefore, at a severe disadvantage, Bochco said.

In addition, Harry Hamlin and Jimmy Smits, two charismatic stars since the series' inception, begged out at the end of last season to pursue other acting opportunities. Their departures created a vacuum both in terms of office politics and in the personal life of Susan Dey's character, Grace Van Owen, who had early in the series wooed Hamlin's Michael Kusak and then at the end of last season was impregnated by Kusak's best pal, Victor Sifuentes (Smits). The romantic triangle had in previous seasons heated up both the bedroom scenes and the office melodrama.

Meanwhile, Arnold Becker (Corbin Bernsen), the consummate conniver and womanizer, turned soft, hooking up in mundane monogamous bliss with his long-suffering, passionately devoted legal secretary, Roxanne (Susan Ruttan). If ever there was an argument against happy endings, this coupling is it.

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