'L.A. Law' raises the bar again

The TV movie picks up 10 years later with the original cast.

In 1986, Steven Bochco, who had created the ground-breaking "Hill Street Blues," broke a little more TV ground showing the business of legal battles in "L.A. Law."

He did it in partnership with a former lawyer, Terry Louise Fisher. Over the eight years the show aired, it won 15 Emmys and a host of other awards. It broke taboos, showing lawyers at their best (idealistic, perceptive, and professional) and at their worst – venal, greedy, and arrogant.

NBC has been trotting out all of its best workmanship lately because of its 75th anniversary season and the May sweeps (which help determine how advertisers will spend their bucks). L.A. Law: The Movie (May 12, 9-11 p.m.) is a happy addition to the NBC roster. It all comes back – the easy professionalism of the office, the strong characterizations by the actors, the "dramedy" approach to storytelling, and the witty dialogue.

As the film opens, 10 years have passed since high-minded Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin) left the firm of McKenzie–Brackman.

Kuzak successfully defended a rapist who then murders again. Kuzak couldn't live with the price of victory, so he left the law and opened a restaurant. But a case he handled when he was practicing law returns to haunt him – and this time the death-row inmate is innocent without a doubt.

Can Kuzak save the innocent man in time? His task is complicated by the fact that his ex-lover, D.A. Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey), is defending her turf – the conviction – and fighting Kuzak tooth and claw.

Back at the office, Roxanne is visited by her former husband, Leland comes out of retirement, womanizer Arnie tries to halt his divorce, and married attorneys Ann and Stuart discover that their spiritual leader may be a con artist.

The complexities are many and varied, but the game is the same.

Producers brought back William Finkelstein to write the script – a fine choice since he wrote for the show in its heyday and won an Emmy, a Peabody, and a Golden Globe for his efforts.

Mr. Finkelstein was a lawyer himself who started out in New York. And though it's been a while since he last wrote for the show, getting back to it was like riding a bicycle, he says.

"It came back pretty quick – those characters are grooved in my brain. It was very agreeable to sit down and summon up the voices that I knew so well," he says. "Part of that is a tribute to the way the characters were drawn – Steven [Bochco] and Terry Louise Fisher did an awfully good job.

"But those actors were perfectly suited to those roles – every one of them became so instinctive about who their characters were. So when you're writing Arnie Becker, and you know you're writing for Corbin Bernsen, it pulls you through it."

He says he was always very fond of the actors, so he was eager for the opportunity to work with them again.

"Smart actors will usually give you a lot of insight into character," he says.

But the opportunity came with challenges, too.

"One of the things you try to do in a film like this is strike a balance between those people who are intimately familiar with all these characters and those who have never seen any of them before," he says. "If it becomes an exercise in nostalgia, then I think its appeal is limited. At the same time, you want to draw on the characters' history."

The film optimistically portrays the characters and the paths their lives take.

But it is also believable. The characters actually find what they deserve to find, and their frailties and strengths make their decisions likely.

The firm is a surrogate family, and the characters occupy classic familial roles, Finkelstein says.

Mention is made of the return of the "prodigal," but Cain and Abel are evident, too. And throughout the film, expiation of former sins, forgiveness, and redemption underpin the stories.

"Underneath all the trappings of being a lawyer and the vanity..., there was a tremendous component of service," he says.

"What ultimately drives Harry Hamlin's character is the opportunity to be of service – that is what he has been missing in not being a lawyer.... I saw this as [Kuzak's] redemption. He is redeemed in serving another."

* * *

The Road From Coorain is Masterpiece Theatre's final offering this season. Based on Jill Ker Conway's best-selling memoir of life on a sheep ranch in New South Wales, it is a tragic story of alienation.

Juliet Stevenson plays Eve Ker, Jill's mother, a remarkably strong woman whose stiff upper lip toward life on the dry plains of Australia finally buckles under the twin sorrows of her husband's death followed by the death of her favorite son.

Hanging on to her daughter for dear life, she drinks too much, criticizes too much, and tries to control her daughter Jill, now a young woman, too much.

Jill's road to freedom lies in academia (she later became the president of Smith College in Northampton, Mass.), and the only escape from her demanding mother is in America.

It is a tough, well-made story – sad and disturbing – and a cautionary tale, too, with insight into motherhood and appreciation for the woman Eve once was.

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