Review for LA Law: Season 1
I've come to realise that the procedural drama is like sci-fi for people who don't like sci-fi. You get taken into the arcane and mysterious worlds of the policeman, the surgeon, the private eye and indeed the lawyer, professions that few of us will ever be qualified for; replete with jargon and procedure that seem fantastic to us, but the appealing thing is that the jobs that they do relate to us all. We all at some point in our lives will need the service of a lawyer or a doctor, and probably even an officer of the law. It's the fantastic combined with the commonplace that makes such shows so successful, and just why there will always be some form of CSI on our screens no matter what. There will also always be a legal drama of some sort on screen. Indeed, I have a vision of Columbo arresting all these murderers, only for Perry Mason to get them acquitted the next week. What else can explain the number of times that Patrick McGoohan appeared on Columbo?
For me however, my appreciation of the legal drama ended with Ally McBeal, and really only began about ten years earlier, with this show, LA Law. Running from 1986 to 1994, I only really started watching it after Doctor Pulaski fell down the lift-shaft. But LA Law begat a tradition of, and a style of legal drama that continues to this day. It was created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, but its script editor at first, before he took on a more prominent role was one David E. Kelley. It's David E. Kelley that has given us Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Boston Legal and more, an unbroken run of successful legal dramas that continues to this day. And it all began with one of the most popular shows to come out of the eighties. I never saw the beginning of LA Law, but now that Revelation are releasing the first season on DVD, I get to see how it all started.
LA Law follows the trials and tribulations of a firm of lawyers, McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak. The cases that they pursue vary from the meaningful to the trivial, the personal to the whimsical, covering all aspect of law from criminal to civil, divorce to tax, corporate to entertainment. They have a diverse portfolio of lawyers in their ranks, ranging from the eager and idealistic defenders of justice, to the cynical mercenaries, and of course the occasional lawyer that has harassed clients quoting from Shakespeare. These varied personalities don't always get along in the boardroom, but they're always sure to make an impact in the courtroom!
The first series of LA Law is presented by Revelation Films across 6 discs, totalling 22 episodes, including the double-length pilot episode.
1. Pilot - Parts 1 & 2
2. Those Lips, That Eye
3. The House of the Rising Flan
4. The Princess and the Wiener King
5. Simian Chanted Evening
6. Slum Enchanted Evening
7. Raiders of the Lost Bark
8. Gibbon Take
9. The Venus Butterfly
10. Fry Me To The Moon
11. El Sid
12, Sidney, The Dead Nosed Reindeer
13. Prince Kuzak In A Can
14. The Douglas Fur Ball
15. December Bribe
16. Beef Jerky
17. Becker On The Rox
18. Fifty Ways To Floss Your Lover
19. The Grace Of Wrath
20. Sparky Brackman, R.I.P.
21. Oy Vey, Wilderness
The image quality isn't the most impressive, although given that the source material is mid eighties US NTSC television, that is to be expected. I doubt that the funds, or the original materials exist to give LA Law the same kind of makeover that Star Trek: The Next Generation is receiving right now, so you ought not to be surprised by the soft, videotape quality, the moiré and shimmer on fine detail and the overall lack of fidelity. What is disappointing about this set is that the episodes here get NTSC-PAL conversions, rather than native PAL as was most probably broadcast here. There is a slight judder to pans and scrolls, while blended frames do become apparent if you happen to pause playback at an inopportune moment. While disappointing, this was never detrimental to the viewing experience.
Audio comes in the form of DD 2.0 Stereo and Mono according to the blurb on the back of the case. I get the feeling that the Stereo only applies to the theme music that accompanies the animated menus on each disc, as the audio in the show itself was a distinctly monaural, front and centre affair. It's generally clear throughout, certainly the dialogue was always clear, but early episodes, and the pilot episode in particular suffered from moments of hiss. Also, with the final disc a single layer offering, with 140 minutes of video on it, compression was more apparent in the audio than the video, with the sound on this disc alone sounding hollow and thin. This affected the music and ambient noise on this disc, not the dialogue, however.
The six discs of LA Law season 1 are presented in an m-lock style case, with two discs overlapping at the front, two discs overlapping at the rear, and a hinged central panel with two discs overlapping on one side. The case comes with a thin card sleeve that repeats the sleeve artwork, and the blurb. You get five dual layer discs, while disc 6 is a single layer disc. There are no extra features in this collection.
I love the eighties, I grew up in the eighties, and a lot of my favourite shows date from that decade. But I'll be the first to admit that shows from that time have dated like few other shows. It's not just in the superficial, the fashions and the technology, but also in the societal attitudes, and the acting and writing styles. Even in what was for then, cutting edge drama, you can see a naiveté and straightforwardness that just seems charming and quaint when compared to shows of today. Yet for all that, LA Law really hasn't dated, certainly not in the fundamentals. Perhaps it's because it was an early example of a serial drama, one that wasn't a soap opera. Certainly I don't recall too many other shows from the eighties that would begin with a "Previously on" narration. Perhaps it's because many of the issues that it tackles are still relevant today, the relationships that it explores between its main characters still provoke interest, or maybe it's just that the acting and the writing is truly timeless. I enjoyed watching these episodes of LA Law even more than the first time that I saw it, twenty plus years ago.
It kicks off in a fairly unpromising way though, establishing an eclectic and comparatively small law firm, peopled by stereotypes, at least at first. Leland McKenzie is the stalwart, wise father figure, while Douglas Brackman is the epitome of the mercenary corporate lawyer. Practically the first face that we see is that of Arnold Becker, a divorce attorney who is the perfect yuppie, slick, slimy, a womaniser in a shiny suit driving a Porsche. Balancing this we have the idealistic and honest trial lawyer, Michael Kuzak, a warm-hearted corporate attorney in Anne Kelsey, the inexperienced new associate Abby Perkins, the likeable and cuddly tax lawyer Stuart Markowitz, and joining them early on is another idealistic young trial lawyer Victor Sifuentes. Outside the firm we also meet District Attorney Grace Van Owen, who often crosses swords with the defence attorneys of McKenzie, Brackman Chaney, & Kuzak, as she tries to put miscreants behind bars for the state.
What makes LA Law work is that from very early on in the series, it sets about subverting these characters, revealing unexpected sides to them, making them human, and making them interesting. There's always something likeable about the most detestable of characters (the more detestable, the more surprisingly likeable), while all the eager idealistic young defenders of justice have blind spots to their characters, or may just let their ego and pride and desire to win overwhelm their moral judgement.
Douglas Brackman may be the corporate mercenary, who chairs every meeting (a trademark of LA Law) with one eye on the balance sheet, and a disdain for the words 'pro bono', but he does have his eyes opened to injustice on more than one occasion, is revealed to be a dog lover, and while an effective administrator, is merely a satisfactory lawyer that lives in the shadow of his more illustrious late father. Arnie Becker is the most surprising such character, slimy divorce lawyer that he is, on occasion even going as far as bedding his clients, using PIs to get dirt on their husbands (a practice that comes to haunt him in one episode), but beneath all the materialism and lust is a sensitive soul. We learn of his awkward childhood, and we also see the warm and tender bond that he has with his secretary Roxanne, a warm, familial affection that we learn he doesn't share with either of his parents. On the other hand there's Victor Sifuentes, eager and idealistic defender of justice, who it turns out isn't above chicanery and using the letter of the law to get his clients off, some of whom turn out to be career criminals. He's initially hired to replace another disgruntled associate, Andrew Walker (Mario van Peebles), and initially there's a question as to whether he's the token ethnic lawyer. Again that comes back to bite him later in the series, when he's confronted with his own prejudice. There are similar shades of grey to all of the characters in LA Law, which makes it very appealing.
With it being a serial drama, there are elements of soap that trend through the show, certainly the relationships that develop through the episodes could be categorised as such. In this first series, we see Stuart and Anne fall in love, as well as the start of the relationship between Michael and Grace. Yet there are also ongoing storylines with respects to Abby's failing relationship, and her husband kidnapping their son, which are less soapy. Several of the cases that the firm handle do last more than one episode. Early on another defence lawyer has a mental breakdown that leads to a tragic event that particularly affects Michael. Near the end of this season, Grace also has to deal with the aftermath of being shot, following a particularly harrowing case prosecuting an unrepentant murderer.
The cases that the lawyers handle vary from the meaningful and resonant, to the trivial and comical, although few reach the bizarre level of situations presented in the later Ally McBeal. There are dramatic and harrowing cases like rape and murder that have to be tried, tragic cases like a woman suffering from post natal psychosis smothering her baby, a pharmaceutical company refusing liability for the side-effects of one of its products, a father seeking justice for his son killed by a drunk driver. Contrasting these are cases like the bull semen armed robbery, the wife suspecting her husband of having an affair with a pig, the squeezable teabag royalties, the multiple bigamist... For every case designed to tug at the heart-strings, there's one to tickle the funny-bone.
I began by saying that LA Law hasn't dated, but there are aspects of the show that may raise a few eyebrows today. Certainly Douglas Brackman as an unrepentant homophobe wouldn't fly in modern drama. There are also moments that do strikingly drag you back to the eighties, and aren't associated with the fashions. There's a rather clumsy safe sex message in one episode, and you are strongly reminded that this show was made when AIDS was the 'gay plague' and a diagnosis was a good as a death sentence. Some of the more poignant episodes in this run concern a man accused of murdering his gay lover. I'm sure that back in 1986, these episodes were meant to make audiences confront their attitudes to AIDS and homosexuality, but today they have a far more resonant message when viewed through modern eyes, in a society debating the legality and appropriateness of euthanasia and assisted dying for the terminally ill. Such duality is fortuitous when it happens, and it's nice to see that in some regards society has evolved and moved on, but perhaps it's a little disappointing to see just how many social issues addressed by LA Law are still relevant today.
I was thoroughly entertained by this first season of LA Law, and I was impressed by how quickly the series found its feet and started developing its characters. It's a sublimely judged balance of comedy and drama, and it stands up strikingly well in comparison to its natural successors, the Ally McBeals and the Boston Legals of this world. If you enjoy legal drama, then you simply mustn't miss out on LA Law, and I find it surprising that it has taken this long to come to DVD. The technical quality of the episodes on these discs may not be ideal, but the quality of the writing and the performances can't be faulted. It's also a blast spotting those stars of the future hidden away in bit parts in this show. Is that Don Cheadle?