Sunday, May 27, 2012

L. A. Law 1-14: Prince Kuzak in a Can

I wanted to start this post off by saying something like "L. A. Law might be the strangest show to ever become a massive hit", but it occurs to me that that's not really true.  A lot of times the most popular TV shows are the ones that are quite unusual in a way that captures the public's interest -- think Twin Peaks or Glee.  (Well, that's probably the first time those two shows have been used in the same sentence before).  For L. A. Law, it took some of the strange and experimental aspects of Hill Street Blues -- the serialized storytelling and the use of out-of-place humour -- and brought them into the mainstream by attaching them to a sexy lawyer procedural.

What results is a show with wild clashes in tone, veering from dark socially-conscious drama to lighthearted farce to the 80s network equivalent of one of today's soft-porn cable dramas.  All of these elements are done fairly well on their own, although the comedy is very broad, but what's really strange is that they all feel like they rightfully exist in the same universe.  This episode's most serious plotline deals with ostensible lead Michael Kuzak (played by 80s artifact extraordinaire "Handsome" Harry Hamlin) dealing with the public suicide of another lawyer, a character whose mental breakdown was first played entirely for laughs.  The absurd and the serious exist in continuity with each other, and L. A. Law recognizes how they can frequently be two sides of the same coin.

Despite the jokey title[1], "Prince Kuzak in a Can" is one of the more all-around serious of L. A. Law episodes.  The story about the suicide of Sid Hershberg, the main serialized plot, is pretty unrelentingly bleak -- Michael attends his mostly empty funeral, and is entirely unable to put the death behind him, to the extend that he begins following Sid's path itself.  The most comedic part is an episodic plot with Victor representing a computer geek who falls head over heels for the office secretary, but even here his affections are treated as a serious matter and not an absurd joke. It does enable a brief reprisal of the show's sexual fixation, in which Arnie has a lengthy monologue about his first time that sounds like a piece of (competent) erotic fiction.  But the non-dramatic moments in this episode are still more subdued than usual.

This is because the plotline has started to tug at the just-established foundation beneath L. A. Law's narrative house of cards.  The show as a whole is a mess of contradictions, and I mean this in a good way -- it has an ambivalence to it that no amount of grandstanding by the characters is able to tease out.  The aesthetics of the series are no exception.  I talked a bit about 80s cheese last week, but this is a much more direct example of it: the garish colour palette, the jazzy score, and of course, the hair.

So, its visual style and general aesthetics are very much in line with 80s soaps like Dallas, and there's more than a bit of a soapish element to the plotting.  It is a show about the affairs of sexy rich people that  you can live vicariously through.  But at the same time L. A. Law makes no bones about the essentially vacuous nature of its protagonists' profession.  For every high-stakes trial involving big speeches there are at least three or four that are petty battles settled through bureaucratic gamesmanship.  Its lawyers don't usually fight for justice, or injustice for that matter: they are tools to more powerful forces.

This vacuousness and drudgery is what was established early on as the source of Sid's madness.  As a small-time lawyer representing prostitutes and hoodlums (possibly a public defender, although I can't quite remember now), he existed at the ugly bottom of the judicial system, where his clients were nothing more than dim pieces shuttled between the dual machines of crime and punishment.  This is visible in his first scene, where he yells at a repeat offender he's representing about not being able to come up with an alibi (a scene most likely inspired by ...And Justice for All).  The setting of his public suicide, where he pleads with the jury to consider his client as a human being beyond judgement, just further highlights that this is a man who is not insane by nature but completely destroyed by the meaninglessness of his profession.

In this episode, Michael starts following in his footsteps.  He takes on two of Sid's cases, both of which emphasize this kind of small-stakes futility.  In one, he represents the above-mentioned prostitute, who has already been arrested again before he finishes dealing with the first charge.  To some extent, the show demonizes criminals like her, who are generally portrayed as dim, mean-spirited and hopeless.  They aren't the monsters that you would see on something like Law and Order, but they are to an extent grotesques.  There is a condescension inherent in the series, which usually treats the life of the proletariat non-lawyers as only causes to be fought for, although it is at least fairly conscious of it.

This is further cemented by the other client, a hit-and-run driver who gets his grandmother to lie on the stand to provide him with an alibi.  This is, as the judge suggests to Michael, a fairly ordinary situation: witnesses lie, and it's the job of the prosecution to ferret it out, not the defense.  Michael doesn't even have conclusive proof that the witness is lying.  But it drives home not just the subjectivity of the legal system, which reduces truth to a rhetorical outcome, but the banality of evil -- or, to be more precise (because his client is not exactly Eichmann) the banality of crime.

At the same time, Michael's refusal to proceed, and subsequent jailing for contempt of court, restores the meaning to the courtroom.  It becomes a trial not of his client but of him himself, and of individual righteousness against systemic malaise.  Of course, this is solipsistic in the extreme, and the series never lets us believe that Michael has accomplished something.  Instead, this echoes Sid's first appearance.  Righteousness -- a belief in what you learned about the legal system in high school civics -- is, in L. A. Law, a form of madness.  And this is another contradiction.  The show has a distinct lack of irony, and bears down with all of the raw, embarrassing emotion of its era, but for all that it has an essentially cynical heart.

There's also a kind of Shakesperian element to the drama, in form if not in quality.  There are plenty of monologues that start out as ruminations on plot events but quickly turn to more philosophical matters, with Sidney's death scene being one of the best examples.  Michael's stand in this episode, as well as Arnie's monologue about his first time, are similar -- dramatic gestures that undercut themselves at the same moment they commit entirely to the drama.  Or maybe it's just that the American court system lends itself to such performances, and is a kind of theatre in itself.

It's also important to note that L. A. Law was possibly the first truly popular serialized show in America.  Of course, once again the ground was paved by Hill Street Blues and a couple other predecessors, but this brought it into the mainstream in a new way.  And this doesn't mean series-long storylines as is commonplace today, but stories that stretch across two or three episodes and are done, which is in some way a less committed version of serial storytelling but is in another way a more natural version of it: each storyline takes however long it takes.  Sometimes these stories seem less like whole-formed stories and more like a kind of bizarre association, with each spinning off a minor detail into a new story.  (For instance, the next episode deals only briefly with Michael's problems, but has a storyline with the judge who throws him in jail in this episode.)

I hate to use a "land of contrasts" conclusion, but L. A. Law lends itself very well to that.  It is simultaneously conventional and experimental, serious and silly, high camp and high art.  All of these elements together make it a bit of a mess, but they also may be what made it popular: there was something for everyone, even snot-nosed amateur critics writing  two and a half decades after the fact.

Next week: "Sing, RahXephon.  In order for everything to become one again."

[1]Looking at the episode titles reveals how lightly the show's staff took even its most serious plots.  I mean, the episode before this, where Sid commits suicide, is named "Sidney the Dead-Nosed Reindeer".  No matter how dramatic (or melodramatic) L. A. Law got, there was always a winking feel to it.

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