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

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.

Surprisingly, very few viewers voiced displeasure or shock with the scene. "We thought we were going to have terrible problems with standards and practices," Wallace said. "I think it's the first time two women have kissed on (the television) screen. The fact is that it was handled so delicately, it came out of the moment."

"It's the greatest thrill when people talk about the show," Kelley said. "When I was in law school, we all used to watch 'Hill Street Blues' religiously Thursday nights and discuss it on Friday mornings. 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. Our audience is pretty damn smart so it isn't easy."

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. I think our show stretches credibility sometimes. We send every script to our legal consultants and they will jump on my head if I have taken too big a license."

The legal profession, he said, also wonders how he is so tuned in to office politics and the financial rumblings of firms across the country.

"I get more comments from lawyers saying, 'Do you have someone listening in our walls?' " Kelley said with a smile.

"I don't think he is really fielding calls about this stuff," Wallace said, laughing. "But he worked in law firms for years and he knows the kind of intrigues that are possible. You're talking about the sick depths of David's mind."

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. (See related story.)

Both Kelley and Wallace insist the trio were not added to replace any existing regular.

"We are not looking to fill in voids, but create new opportunities for telling new stories," Kelley said. "I think it would be a big mistake if you tried to go out and recreate the characters that you already have.

"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."

The new characters are a different breed from the typical corporate "L.A." lawyer. "We realized that in order to stay new and fresh, you have to kind of go off the chart and get new kinds of characters," Kelley said. "You can't get people who generically typify the rest of your office environment."

"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 storyline in my pocket for awhile and we are actually in the process of doing that storyline, 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. The characters won't leave by getting hit by a bolt of lightning. They won't turn out to be figments in somebody's dream. If and when they leave I don't think the way they leave will shock the sensibilities of 'L.A. Law' viewers."

"Just wait to you see what's going to happen!," Wallace said.

"L.A. Law" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m.

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