Saying So Long to Billable Hours : Television: 'L.A. Law's' finale will complete filming today, but the characters' stories won't be tied up in a neat package.

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In perhaps the most memorable moment in "L.A. Law's" eight-year run, Rosalind Shays, the uncongenial but shrewd litigator brought in to boost the firm's droopy revenues, mistakenly stepped into an empty elevator shaft and plummeted to her death.

But as fitting as it might be to conclude the storied series with a group plunge down an elevator shaft--after all, the stars of the show all play lawyers--the final episode of "L.A. Law" isn't so final. The firm won't go up in flames. An earthquake doesn't bury anyone in the underground parking lot.

The only really conclusive event of "L.A. Law's" swan song, which completes filming today for a May 19 telecast on NBC, is that Leland McKenzie (played by Richard Dysart), the firm's soft-spoken senior partner, announces his retirement after learning he has prostate cancer. Whether he lives or dies, no one is telling.

Whether the firm lives or dies, no one is telling either, but many of the cast members hold out hope that they will be able to do a two-hour TV movie of "L.A. Law" sometime soon that will deliver a more definitive verdict than this episode.

"I think viewers will be left wanting to know more about what happens to these people," Dysart said. "When we came on eight years ago, we were hot. We were a hit from the middle of the first show. We were a classy show in the true sense of the word, and I believe it should go out in a classy way. I don't sense that has happened here, because the hour form just won't accommodate all the characters we have and the producers didn't have enough lead time to prepare for it."

But Mark Tinker, one of the show's co-executive producers, said they are "trying not to do a typical wrap-up show where all the things in the package get a neat little bow in them. Without trying to take each character and have a little story that gives you some finality to that person or their situation, we're just trying to make it a continuing slice of life where some rather large changes are going on within the context of the office and how people react to that. I don't think that viewers will have a complete sense of closure, but I'm not sure that is bad, because that gives the impression that these characters have a life beyond this place."

On the set for filming of the final conference room scene--the one constant that was included in all 173 episodes--things got a little personal. After the actors performed their final exchange, they received hugs, kisses and slaps on the back from their colleagues. As Jill Eikenberry (who plays Ann Kelsey) recited her last lines in that glass-enclosed room, she choked up for real. And as the crew broke for lunch, their work on that particular set done forever, Corbin Bernsen (Arnie Becker) cried.

"It's more emotional than I thought it was going to be," said Michael Tucker, who is Eikenberry's husband both in real life and on the show (Stuart Markowitz). "It sort of sneaks up on you, even though we can't say we were surprised that NBC pulled the plug. They have been mulling it over for a while. The show almost ended a few times before, and some people think that it should have. Yet we really got it back this final year after a couple of bad ones. It would have been a shame if it ended last year, when we were all over the place and really weren't doing 'L.A. Law.' "

"L.A. Law" departs as one of the most decorated dramas in TV history, having won 15 Emmys--including four as best dramatic series. Created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, an attorney turned television producer, the show was Bochco's "Hill Street Blues" in yuppie clothes--featuring an ensemble cast, contemporary and often controversial legal issues, sexy personal entanglements and a compelling story mix of the tear-jerking with the macabre.

In a nasty dispute with Bochco, Fisher left the show early on. Bochco himself said goodby following the show's third season to devote himself to producing new shows under a mega-deal with ABC. He left the series in the hands of a young ex-lawyer named David E. Kelley, who wrote nearly every episode in years four and five--with a major assist from the show's current executive producer, William M. Finkelstein, another former lawyer. Many fans consider these years, which included the Rosalind Shays story line, the show's best, and Kelly won best drama Emmys in both seasons before leaving to create "Picket Fences" for CBS.

But cast defections began to plague the show--Harry Hamlin, Susan Dey and Jimmy Smits all left--and the series, without an ex-lawyer/producer at its helm, lost its way in years six and seven. Bochco said in an interview that despite his input as creative consultant during that period, the show floundered badly and the audience turned away. Tucker said he remembers reading scripts and thinking, "We're dead."

Finkelstein, who had left to create and produce "Civil Wars" with Bochco, returned to the series at the end of last season and oversaw it this year as well, and those involved contend that "L.A. Law" found its old voice again. It also inched up a bit in the ratings.

But with a veteran cast pulling in huge salaries each week, "L.A. Law" is extremely expensive, costing more than $1.6 million an episode to make. And while he said he believes "L.A. Law" still has a lot of life left in it, Bochco speculated that it would be more cost effective for NBC to replace it with a new drama or a newsmagazine.

In its prime, blessed with the Thursday time slot behind "Cosby" and "Cheers," the series regularly finished in the top 15. Its legal cases--on such topics as the outing of prominent gays, dwarf tossing, the court-martial of a U.S. soldier who disobeyed orders to fire on civilian targets during the invasion of Panama, the morality of the death penalty and the culpability of a Jewish mohel sued for snipping a bit too much at a circumcision ceremony--prompted discussion among lawyers and laymen alike.

And the romance--Hamlin dressing up in a gorilla suit to woo Dey, Tucker employing a secret sexual technique called the "Venus Butterfly" to win the hand of Eikenberry, Amanda Donohoe kissing colleague Michele Greene in a much-ballyhooed lesbian embrace--likely prompted at least a few imitators or fantasies at least among the show's many fans.

"Part of the appeal is that it was about the workplace, and everyone can identify with that, with the hierarchy and pecking order and back-stabbing," Eikenberry said. "And I think people like to see shows about lawyers, especially one that humanizes them, because I think lawyers are a little intimidating to the average person. But mostly I think it was the mixing of the comic with the tragic, the dark with the light--like life."

"We were the mirror of that Reagan-Bush, 1980s era of greed and lust and this kind of out-of-control, searching-for-a-soul kind of society," Bernsen said. "I think our society is still looking for a soul, but we're more on the right track now and that's why the show is kind of over. It signified an era, and what it will be remembered for is that it captured what people were going through. They could turn it on each week and have some sort of recognition of the kind of society they lived in."

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