Review for LA Law: Season 4
I hate to admit this, but re-watching US comedy isn’t easy for me. I may laugh out loud at shows like The Big Bang Theory or Friends the first time around, but if I watch a repeat of an episode, and know where the laughs are coming, I tend to see past them, and realise just how cheesy and constructed by committee such shows are. When I get the same feeling with shows as good as Cheers, Frasier and Taxi, I begin to feel that a whole genre of television is closed off to me. Thankfully there is the comedy drama, which blends laughter and tragedy in equal measure, and concentrates on developing character and narrative rather than filling a gag per minute quota. Such shows retain their quality over the years, and never lose in terms of re-watch value. LA Law is one of the finest exponents of the art, and I have been anticipating the arrival of Season 4 on UK shores.
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!
Season 4 of LA Law is presented by Revelation Films across 6 discs, totalling 22 episodes, and this season sees Benny get engaged, Anne and Stuart have a baby, and Arnie get disgruntled. Victor’s personal life hits a roadblock when his girlfriend is assaulted. Meanwhile the firm hits something of a financial rough spot, so rough that they hire a rainmaker in the form of the divisive Rosalind Shays.
1. The Unsterile Cuckoo
2. Captain Hurt
3. When Irish Eyes Are Smiling
4. The Mouse That Soared
5. One Rat, One Ranger
6. Lie Down and Deliver
7. Placenta Claus is Coming to Town
8. The Good Human Bar
9. Noah’s Bark
10. The Pay’s Lousy, But the Tips Are Great
11. True Brit
12. On Your Honor
13. Whatever Happened to Hannah?
14. Ex-Wives and Videotape
15. Blood, Sweat & Fears
16. Bound for Glory
17. Justice Swerved
18. Watts a Matter?
19. Bang... Zoom... Zap
20. Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sued
21. Outward Bound
22. The Last Gasp
LA Law Season 4 gets a similar 4:3 transfer to the previous season. It’s an NTSC-PAL conversion, from the video tape era of US television, but the image is clear enough throughout, without any obvious flaw, artefact or glitch. You get to see all those shiny eighties power suits in all their designer label glory.
LA Law Season 4 gets a DD 2.0 audio track, which I believe has a smidge of stereo to it. The important thing is that the dialogue is clear throughout, and there is no problem with hiss on the audio. I did notice with season 4 some minor pops on the soundtrack, the sort of indication that you get when audio levels are peaking, but the audio is at a low level on these discs. It doesn’t significantly hinder the enjoyment of the show though, and once again, subtitles are conspicuous by their absence.
I also noticed in my review collection, a problem with 4 of the episodes, episodes 7, 14, 15 and 16, in that the audio was shunted to the left speaker and distorted. Revelation Films have assured me that the problem will be corrected for the retail release of season 4.
There’s a palpable dip in quality for LA Law’s fourth season, although on the face of it there really shouldn’t be. The episodes themselves are just as strong as ever, with the writers tackling subjects that challenged early nineties society, as well as reflected some of its darker moments, and more regrettable attitudes. The cases that the lawyers and judges faced in this series as always varied from the ridiculous to the heart-breaking, and it’s the rare episode in this run that doesn’t hold the attention. It’s just that when it comes to the overarching plots, the season long character arcs and developments, that LA Law suddenly loses the cohesion that was so strong in the first three seasons. It’s so dramatic a fall in consistency that I had to check that the big Hollywood writer’s strike was in 1988, not 1990.
It’s as if none of the characters got satisfying storylines in this season, and even if they did get decent development, it would be in stop-start bursts, little hits of narrative for a couple of episodes, then nothing for half a season before suddenly reminding us that previously on LA Law, this happened. There’s hardly any momentum going through the series, and certain characters, such as Abby in particular, and to a lesser extent Anne and Stuart really don’t have much to do. Victor’s personal life has the strongest arc in the start of the show, as his relationship with Alison is tested, but after the tenth episode, Victor is pretty much out of the picture until the final episode, where he has to help a childhood friend on death row.
Poor Doug Brackman, usually the go to guy when it comes to interesting storylines, only gets one such here, which admittedly is the show’s high point when it comes to comedy, but with such a poorly timed punchline, that the laughter carries over into the next, more serious scene with a jury verdict being announced regarding a very emotive case. Arnie once again gets involved with a client, but this time it looks as if the relationship is going in a very positive direction. But then a problem arises at the firm, which results in some precipitous action from him, action which should have taken a few episodes or so to resolve, but is fixed in a matter of minutes, in an unrealistic way, and he then vanishes to the back burner until the last few episodes again.
By far the most disappointing character arc in this season is that of Michael Kuzak, who begins with a midlife crisis and a motorcycle and then graduates to a cheerleader girlfriend in Kimberly Dugan (Ally McBeal’s Courtney Thorne-Smith), and has a one night stand with Grace, all major drama, but which never gets developed. The next time we catch up with Michael, his relationship with Kimberly has ended off-screen, he’s thinking about going back to New York, as his dad has terminal cancer, and it all looks like goodbye, until the very last minute when it seems more like contract negotiations suddenly took a positive turn for the actor, rather than a realistic change of heart for the character.
All through the series, it looks as if interesting possibilities arise to challenge these characters, a DUI charge for Stuart, Victor attacking a suspect, Jonathan having to keep the identity of a hit and run driver secret, all of which should have developed into significant ramifications, but are quickly and easily resolved, or simply just forgotten. And Benny and Alice get engaged at the start of the season, but the next time we see them together at the end, it’s to break up. None of the character arcs satisfy in this fourth season.
As well as the character arcs, there are a couple of narrative arcs across the episodes. The big legal story in this season is the Earl Williams murder case, one which at least proffers Michael Kuzak as defending attorney in a better light, than his personal life does this season. But at first I had to blink at the way that the story was written, so venomous was the prosecution, and so blind the judge. It felt a little unrealistic in the way that it developed, but at least it paid off in the arc’s conclusion. The second, season long storyline was that of the firm’s financial difficulties, and the decision to bring in a rainmaker to up profits. Enter Rosalind Shays, as played by Diana Muldaur, perhaps my least favourite screen character of all. I loathed this character when I first saw these episodes, but it was only this time, when I watched the episodes together that I began to understand why. Once again, her writing isn’t that brilliant, varying between principled attorney standing up for her colleagues, to manipulative, divisive and mercenary. She wants power, she uses whatever base tricks she knows to amass it, and she says just what people want to hear to gain their trust, and then plays them off against each other. Then she goes behind their backs to stick the knife in. In Dallas, such a character would be J.R. Ewing. But with the character’s low and ponderous voice, in LA Law, she’s Margaret Thatcher. And I find the episode with the lift shaft beckoning.
Thankfully, while the overarching storylines fall flat this season, the actual court cases are just as gripping, well-written and indeed entertaining as ever. Social touchstones include anti-fur protestors, anti-abortionists, child abuse, euthanasia, sex discrimination, a surgeon prosecuted for refusing to operate on an A.I.D.S. sufferer, cot death, and gay people being outed. The real world even gets a look-in with cases about the US shooting down that Iranian jet, a reflection of the social pressures that led to the LA Race riots, and a reminder of the war on drugs, with an innocent family the victim of zealous police, mirrored by an 8-year-old drug mule turned cop-killer. While comedy comes from dwarf tossing, cereal packet competitions, Tourettes syndrome, circumcision, an unfunny comedian that sues his ex-wife/gag writer, and frog jumping competitions.
This fourth season of LA Law doesn’t quite have the same cohesiveness of the earlier seasons, but still delivers in terms of entertainment. Hopefully for season 5 the character writing will get back to that high standard.