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

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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.

Bochco conceded that in planning for this year, the producers failed to emphasize the reconfigured office politicking that had been crucial to the show's strength. And he added that to compensate for some of the acting defections, the show had saddled itself with too many regular characters.

One of his primary concerns, he said, was that the show "had really begun to lose continuity with our regulars--our old regulars, the people who are most readily identified with 'L.A. Law,' the characters I knew best because I was involved in creating them. And my agenda was to get those characters re-involved in the show big time."

Bochco insists that in no way has he single-handedly rescued the show, and, if the last two episodes have been better, he said that the writing staff that has been with the show all season deserves most of the credit. He said he did not junk the story lines planned months before for these final eight episodes, but he has been involved in daily story meetings and writing sessions in which he and his staff have fleshed out those long-planned plots, changed them, sharpened them and sexed them up.

The second episode opened with a Bochco-esque touch. Becker and Roxanne were seen showering together when she grabbed his just-operated-on-and-still-tender testicles and demanded to know whether he had been cheating on her. Later, back in the office, Becker's colleagues bombard him with such quips as "Arnie's feeling a little testy" and "I'm sure you'll be back on the ball in no time."

Littlefield said that Bochco has helped "tune up" the show, making the legal cases more relevant and injecting more emotion into the personal stories.

The last two outings have tickled viewers too, although the show has been facing NCAA basketball on CBS rather than the more formidable "Knots Landing." Nonetheless, last Thursday the show finished No. 17 for the week with a 15.7 rating and 27% share of the available audience, up nearly 1.9 million homes and 4 share points over its season average, but still down from the 30% share it once averaged routinely. The recent numbers compare well to those of last season, however, when "L.A. Law" finished at No. 22 with a 14.8 and 26 share. Littlefield said that even with the drop in ratings this season, the show is right on target with last season in the key young-adult demographics.

But all problems have not simply melted under the heat of Arnie Becker's rejuvenated libido. Bochco, who no longer has any contractual obligation to "L.A. Law," was only able to return because production on his other shows had slowed at season's end. Next season, he'll again have to focus solely on them. So a new executive producer will have to be found. And, he said, the show will have to dump some of its 16 regular characters next season.

Bochco said he doesn't "have a clue" how any of that will be resolved--although one cast decision was made for him this week when Dey announced that she will be leaving to star in the new CBS comedy from "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English.

"Our job right now is to finish up this season as strong as we can to send a message to the fans of this show that whatever problems there have been were a function of execution, rather than a function of it being a tired concept," Bochco said. "There's nothing tired about it. If executed properly, this show should go on for 10 or 11 years. It has so many good characters and a fundamentally good concept that is always vital. In a very distressed society, the law becomes the most incredible touchstone, the moral center of society, and you can always find compelling ways to tell a story."

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