Friday, October 21, 2011

Halfway Down: Milne Helps with the "Middleness"

A.A. Milne's poem positively leaps to mind today, my annual personal New Year's Day, with this particular birthday encumbered with the sense of middleness.

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn't any
Other stair
Quite like

I'm not at the bottom,
I'm not at the top;
So this is the stair
I always

Milne's poem from When We Were Very Young has been described as a "juvenile meditation" of a small child sitting on a middle step of staircase, equally able to go up or down.

I grew up in a split-split level house. There were 3 sets of stairs from the ground floor to my bedroom at the top of the house (and a set of stairs down to the finished basement).

The stairs from the second bedroom level to the living room were the longest and most reminiscent of Ernest Shepard's illustration. I spent many happy hours on those stairs, especially when my parents were having parties. I had been put to bed, but I would "sneak" down to watch the grownups, who seemed very glamorous.

Bound By This Date
I like to think about my fellow celebrants—living and deceased—as well as interesting things that happened today, such as John Keats leaving London for Rome in 1820, 190 years ago today, where he will die in his apartment on the Spanish Steps on February 23, 1821, and the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1959.

As for celebrants, Samuel Coleridge is the first among equals. Then there's Dizzy Gillespie, Carrie Fisher, Elvin Bishop, Manfred Mann, Ursual K. Le Guin, Patrick Kavanagh, Alfred Nobel, Alfonse de Lamartine. And my favorite, the character Olivia Dunham on Fringe (the episode "The Cure" which took place on her birthday first aired on October 21, 2008.)

Bound By an Image
This birthday also calls to mind one of the most poetic visual images I have of my father. It was the day of his middle birthday, which was in June. I was in my bedroom at the top of the house and for some reason looked out my window to the backyard. It was raining very hard, and my father, who had been doing some sort of heavy yard work, had gone under the small awning of the tool shed in the very back corner of the property to wait out the rain.

I saw him in his yard outfit-—jeans and a white T-shirt-—squatting down, looking out over his beautiful property as the rain teemed. I imagined him thinking about all he had accomplished, and all he had not

He died seven years later. That's the tricky thing about the stairs. In real life, you don't know which stair you're standing on.

But for now, I'm happy not to worry about it but let "all sorts of funny thoughts run round my head."

Halfway up the stairs
Isn't up,
And it isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery,
It isn't in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head:

"It isn't really
It's somewhere else

Kermit's nephew Robin sings a lovely rendition of the poem set to music by Harold Fraser-Simson. Sing us out Robin!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

21st Century All For One, On My Birthday!

It made me smile to see that the 3D, 21st century, action packed Three Musketeers opens tomorrow, on my birthday! Given my love for the novel, what are the odds it would be created and released this year, when my birthday is on a Friday? I have a feeling it will be awful—why couldn't Guy Ritchie have taken on Dumas rather than Conan Doyle—but I am thrilled that the team is being brought into this century. I will see it tomorrow along with the other faithful.

The definitive film version is from Richard Lester, with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, Charlton Heston, and Faye Dunaway as Milady. I wrote about it and my love for the novels here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Love Among the Torts: 25th Anniversary of L.A. Law

The sexy sax riff wailing over the black screen to the declarative thump of the car trunk, both primal and urban. As opening credits go, it offered the total package.

And so L.A. Law announced itself to weekly prime time with a classic Mike Post back-beat composition on Oct. 3, 1986 (after its two-hour pilot movie was shown twice the month before). From the close-up of the license plate for the Golden State we see bright sunshine bouncing off the windows of the tall, glass, L.A. buildings. It’s the same brightness we enjoyed in the '80s Remington Steele and Moonlighting, both zeitgeist influences on the lighter side of Law. Bochco’s own Hill Street Blues, with its large ensemble cast and interweaving storylines, was the more direct model for the legal drama. No longer on the gritty streets of the anonymous urban city, L.A. Law brought interesting, contemporary issues into the pristine, modern offices of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak and mixed them up with quirky romantic entanglements and a dash of the bizarre.

Howard Rosenberg wrote of the premiere:
“There should be a law requiring more series like NBC's new L.A. Law. Its premiere, at 9 tonight immediately raises the level of the fall season about a dozen notches…Though vastly different in tone and texture, L.A. Law honors the tradition of that fine old CBS courtroom series of the 1960s, The Defenders."

That’s what’s hard to remember 25 years hence: what the landscape was before L.A.Law. We live in a world that knows Ally McBeal, Bobby Donnell of The Practice, Alan Shore and Denny Crane of Boston Legal, Patty Hewes of Damages. But before them audiences knew and loved Perry Mason (1957 to 66), Lawrence Preston, The Defenders (1961-65), Judd, for the Defense, (1967-69), Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law (1971-74). These characters were fairly one dimensional, stiff, less “life like” than those we know today. The TV naturalism that broke through in the '70s (as surely as color did the decade before) with likes of All in the Family and Maude and continued with Hill Street and St. Elsewhere in the '80s first hit the legal profession with L.A.Law. That’s one reason it was such a hit. It also was fresh and engaging, with good dialogue and smart perspectives on difficult issues. It earned 15 Emmys, with four for outstanding drama series in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1991.

Love Among the Torts

What pulled me in as a viewer was the Grace Van Owen/Michael Kuzak romance. Grace was a model for young women in the '80s: reserved (which became dour as the seasons went on), good at her job, and the love interest of Harry Hamlin and Jimmy Smits. Who wouldn’t want to be her? Her style of dress started a trend. Rose Marie Turl of The Los Angeles Times reported in 1988 that “what has become known in the retail trade as 'the 'Law blouse' is surfacing all over Los Angeles. ‘I don't remember a blouse like this: the V-neck, the softness and the fact it works with any jacket,’ marvels Lee Hogan Cass, fashion director for the Broadway. ‘Wrap blouses have been in existence for a long time, but this is a little different version. It's a very feminine way of softening a suit.’“

I also got hooked into the surprise romance of Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry) and Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker). Their romance became even more popular than Van Owen and Kuzak/Sifuentes, helped by the never defined Venus Butterfly. A storyline that transcended the series was Diana Muldaur as Rosalind Shays. She comes to the firm as a rainmaker, then maneuvers to oust Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart). They become involved amid the doublecrossing, which was interesting enough, but it’s the scene at the elevator where Leland thinks Roz is upset that he won’t marry her, when she turns to enter the elevator and falls down the shaft to her death. (An episode mischievously titled "Good to the Last Drop.") It ranked No. 81 on TV Guide/TV Land's list of 100 Most Memorable TV Moments and it’s part of the bizarre edge to the series, which started with the partner Chaney dead at his desk.

Order in the Court

The comings and goings of the creative team of L.A. Law would make its own interesting series. Suffice to say it was created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher and through the years saw the talents of David E. Kelley, John Tinker, John Masius and William Finklestein in creative control. By season six, ratings had dropped. Here’s the ever curmudgeonly John J. O’Connor from The New York Times on Oct. 17, 1991:
“The formula, with its office politics here and court cases there, has gone flat. The scenes in court have all the fizz of a set-in-concrete Matlock encounter as dramatic outbursts alternate regularly with brooding stares of significance, the camera lingering pointedly. The issues are current, but the scripts are strictly fill-in-the-blanks exploitations of topics like spouse abuse or the legal status of Vietnam M.I.A.'s. In short, L.A. Law has become totally predictable.”

In 1992, both Steven Bochco and David Kelley returned to the show, to see if they could bolster its popularity. It continued on to an eighth season, ending on May 19, 1994.

Cultural and Professional Impact

In 2009 the ABA Journal ran a poll for the best legal TV shows. Not surprisingly L.A. Law was voted No. 1, 15 years after it left the air. The editors’ comment is very telling: “For lawyers of a certain age, Leland McKenzie is the managing partner they are still looking for. Douglas Brackman Jr. is the manager they seem to end up with.”

John Leonard had some harsh words for its impact on its descendants in a 2008 review of Raising the Bar:
“But Bochco’s next big hit, L.A. Law, after a long and lurid run of big money and soap shenanigans, inspired so much contempt in the popular culture for private-practice law that subsequent noble-noodle shows like Shannon’s Deal, Eddie Dodd, The Wright Verdicts, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill and Sweet Justice never stood a ratings chance.”

Were we really poisoned by the money and slickness of McKenzie, Brackman? Perhaps. There were many cultural casualties of the 1980s. We’ll see if Kathy Bates and Harry’s Law purifies the image of our legal profession for a new generation.

An Anniversary Rider

Back in 1993, Steven Bochco and the cast and creative team of L.A. Law were the honorees of the gala of the then-Museum of Television & Radio, now The Paley Center for Media. Bochco filmed a short piece for it with the partners at McKenzie, Brackman debating whether they should go to the gala. You can see this never-seen-outside-of that-dinner video on The Paley Center for Media site. So pop on over to see Leland McKenzie, Douglas Brackman, Ann Kelsey, Arnie Becker, Jonathan Rollins and the gang in the conference room, one last time.