One word on "L.A. Law": soap opera. Oh, all right, that's two words.
Anyway, "L.A. Law" returns for its seventh season tonight and the operative concept is that of soap opera.
The making of "L.A. Law," -- with all the cast changes and firings and hirings of writers and producers in an attempt to save the show -- has become a soap opera in its own right. And, in another use of the term, tonight's episode ultimately suffers from some of the sillier cliches of bad soap opera.
First, the latest round of producers and writers finds Rick Wallace -- who was fired or left last year, depending on your source -- returning as executive producer this season. He has brought in two let's-talk-quality-TV writers, John Tinker and John Masius (formerly of "St. Elsewhere"), to write the first episode. The team delivers a few fine moments and funny lines tonight. Most of them come at the very beginning and end of the hour. The opening is spent with Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) and Douglas Brackman (Alan Rachins) discussing all the changes in the "leaner and meaner McKenzie-Brackman," as workmen paint new sign out front that attempts to reflect the cast's comings and goings.
The two partners disagree about whether McKenzie should have paid moving expenses for Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey now of "Love and War") to move to New York (where "Love and War" is set). And Douglas makes a very nasty, very Brackmanesque remark connecting C. J. Lamb's (Amanda Donahoe) sexual appetite with her leaving the firm to become a professional golfer. That's right, a professional golfer.
But, overall, there is some genuine fun in the way the facts of real-life actors' leaving the show are purposefully blurred with make-believe explanations cooked up to explain the characters' disappearances.
Tonight's hour also deserves some nice-try, earnest points for more-or-less responsibly attempting to use last spring's riot in Los Angeles as a backdrop for everything that happens tonight.
But too much of the show is spent knee-deep in the suds of desperate soap opera nuttiness.
The big news is the arrival of a new attorney, Daniel Morales, played by A. Martinez, of the canceled NBC daytime soap, "Santa Barbara." He's a hunk's hunk whose wife recently died, leaving him to care for a baby girl. But he's also a hunk in touch with his nurturing side: He brings baby with him to the office on his first day at the firm.
As if that's not just a bit too-too-too much, Morales' longest segment on camera finds him in his law office with no shirt on. The explanation is that Baby Morales spit up on him, and he hasn't had time to cover his bare chest -- what with his being a great criminal attorney and super daddy and all. This is not played for laughs. The producers expect viewers to find it plausible and not see it as a desperate attempt to replace Jimmy Smits on the sex-o-meter.
Is the next step to have a baby spit up on one of the women attorneys so she can go topless, too? Why couldn't Morales just take a shower? Or were the producers afraid he'd find Bobby Ewing in there and wonder if the last couple of years of "L.A. Law" without Harry Hamlin were all a bad dream?
There's more soap goofiness. Markowitz (Michael Tucker) is pulled from his car by rioters and beaten. And he appears to wake up with no memory! Oh, Michael.
As you might have figured out by now, tonight's show is wildly uneven. No, it's not yet time to pronounce "L.A. Law" D.O.A. . . . But tonight's show definitely has the feel of an emergency room patient desperately gasping for breath and battling to find new life.