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L.A. Law: The Complete First Season (DVD Review)

15 Feb, 2014 By: John Latchem

Street 2/25/14
Shout! Factory
$29.93 6-DVD set
Not rated
Stars Harry Hamlin, Susan Dey, Corbin Bernsen, Jill Eikenberry, Alan Rachins, Michele Greene, Jimmy Smits, Michael Tucker, Susan Ruttan, Richard Dysart.

Shout! Factory’s very welcome (and long awaited) DVD of the first season of “L.A. Law” achieves the rare feat of literally recommending itself. The money quote comes from series star Harry Hamlin during the extensive cast interviews included with the bonus material, when he quite accurately observes that all viewers have to do is watch the first four episodes to get hooked.

Hailed as one of TV’s all-time great legal dramas almost from its premiere on NBC in 1986, “L.A. Law” inspired a generation of impressionable minds (myself included) to at least consider becoming a lawyer. As we learn from the DVD’s excellent 90-minute retrospective documentary, legendary producer Stephen Bochco developed the show as a sort of counterpoint to his acclaimed cop drama “Hill Street Blues,” focusing on the other side of the law.

The show focuses on the travails of a prestigious mid-size Los Angeles law firm, giving the show an air of glitz and glamour without being afraid to get its hands dirty with serious storylines and an examination of issues that are as relevant now as they were three decades ago. Topics tackled in the first season include the death penalty, assisted suicide, AIDS and IRS harassment. 

It’s no surprise this first season won the first of the show’s four Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series (for which it was nominated six times during its eight-year run).

The tone is established within the first few minutes of each episode, with a teaser that usually took an unexpected twist, leading to that unforgettable sax riff that kicked off the iconic opening credits as the show’s title slammed down on the license plate of a car trunk to the strains of Mike Post’s theme tune — just a perfect way to begin a show.

The writing exhibited a deft blend of humor and drama, driven by such well-rounded characters that any of them could effectively carry the hour if they needed to. The heavyweights, of course, were Hamlin as hotshot litigator Michael Kuzak, Corbin Bernsen as sleazy divorce attorney Arnie Becker, and Jimmy Smits as champion of the underdog Victor Sifuentes, who wasn’t above skirting the boundaries of ethics for his clients.

One of the highlights of nearly every episode was the weekly staff meeting, as the group gathered to discuss their cases and have the occasional debate about the hot-button topic of the day, usually to be interrupted by managing partner Douglas Brackman (Alan Rachins) hilariously complaining about the firm’s budget.

The show also gave rise to the career of David E. Kelley, and this first season bears all the hallmarks of his trademark offbeat humor, to the point where it’s pretty easy to figure out which episodes he worked on just by how the cases are described at the beginning. When the district attorney starts talking about prosecuting a guy for stealing $100,000 in bull semen, you can bet Kelley’s name will pop up in the credits.

The video quality is relatively clean, with an occasional scratch on the film slipping by. But otherwise it looks like a show from the 1980s ought to look. I have to imagine that if someone tried to make a “Mad Men”-style show about lawyers from 30 years ago, it wouldn’t look too different than what this show managed to pull off the first time through.

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