“L.A. Law,” an Emmy-winning NBC drama that generated almost constant buzz during its run three decades ago, returned to the cultural spotlight this month when Hulu rereleased its 172 episodes in remastered high-definition format.
Until the streaming relaunch, the show was hard to find, existing in DVDs at junk shops and in the depths of Amazon Prime Video. And so, unlike “The Golden Girls,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and a few other series from the 1980s and 1990s, it had remained all but unknown to anyone born in the last 40 years or so.
In recent days the Styles journalists Melissa Guerrero, Sadiba Hasan, Callie Holtermann and Louis Lucero — all members of the Millennial or Gen Z generations who had never seen “L.A. Law” — watched the first three episodes on Hulu. They shared their observations with the editors Minju Pak and Jim Windolf, who were fans of the show in its heyday.
Produced by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, and starring Harry Hamlin (Michael Kuzak), Corbin Bernsen (Arnie Becker), Jill Eikenberry (Ann Kelsey), Jimmy Smits (Victor Sifuentes) and Susan Dey (Grace Van Owen), “L.A. Law” made its debut in September 1986. It was the subject of workplace conversation and countless think pieces, and it won 15 Emmys before the final gavel in 1994.
So how does it hold up for viewers in the 2020s? Is it just a time capsule of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years, or something more? The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Louis Lucero It’s “Law & Order,” minus the order. Doozies abound. “You didn’t need a lift — you hardly had anything to drink!” I was thrilled to encounter that charming line at the end of the third episode.
Jim Windolf Buzzed driving was apparently not drunken driving in the 1980s.
Minju Pak Did anyone else notice the saxophone and all the silk?
Callie Holtermann Sorry, I was too busy learning about smoking indoors.
Melissa Guerrero And car phones. Someone please bring them back, if only for the aesthetic.
JW The sax in the opening credits really sets a mood. Along with the vanity plates.
LL That saxophone should be licensed by the A.T.F.!
Sadiba Hasan The theme song alone made me want to turn off the TV.
MP I do love the depiction of L.A. traffic, which is now decidedly worse. Can I ask the younger people here, was there anything about the show that you liked? Did the office politics horrify you?
LL To the second question, a hard yes, obviously. But in spite of myself, there was a lot that I found delightful. It’s always intoxicating to see an analog office, for starters — the visual equivalent of ASMR for the Slack-addled millennial brain.
JW It’s hard to imagine what people did in their offices when there’s no computer on the desk.
LL People running around with manila envelopes and little slips of paper that say who called? Literally unimaginable. Too cute for words! Did people realize how adorable they were being?
JW They did not.
MP I did find that network television moved really quickly.
MG I appreciated how, from the initial scene onward, the show made the characters’ fatal flaws very apparent.
JW The first few episodes pack in a lot of issues we’re still dealing with. There’s a “doozy” factor in how they’re treated, but they’re there. A trans woman; a woman denied a promotion after she sleeps with a partner; bosses botching workplace diversity; and heartless insurance companies. How did all that strike you?
SH I was worried that an ’80s law show would have aged terribly, but many of the issues that came up are still very much relevant, like victim blaming in sexual assault cases and racism in the workplace. And while there are lawyers at the firm who are greedy and seemingly heartless, there are also lawyers with a conscience.
MG Truthfully, I held my breath when some of these themes came up. It played into the assumption that old TV shows wouldn’t address this well.
CH At one point Kuzak says something like, “I don’t always believe my client, but I have to believe in the system.” Every generation rails against “the system” in a way it believes is unique, but I doubt that line is going to draw in Gen Z viewers.
LL At least once an act break in the first three episodes, I was reminded that today’s progressivism may prove to be tomorrow’s cringe. Obviously, the reveal of Georgia’s trans identity was played for shock, but it’s not difficult to imagine the writers patting themselves on the back for affording the character a nominal bit of dignity of explaining herself on several occasions.
JW Before “L.A. Law,” that kind of thing was played for laughs. I’m thinking of Klinger on “M*A*S*H,” or Flip Wilson as Geraldine on “The Flip Wilson Show.” Can we take a look at the style? Did any of the fashion jump out at you?
SH So much blonde hair. Blonde hair everywhere.
LL And in such different arrangements!
MP Did people age worse back then? Or maybe they just dressed old.
JW The men’s suits were incredibly roomy.
MP I kept hoping for a good tailor to show up.
MG Susan Dey’s character reminded me of C.C. Babcock from “The Nanny.” The blonde bob! The pantsuit! The power! Iconic.
CH I Googled some of the actors to see if any of them were the Jacob Elordi of their day. And Harry Hamlin was People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1987!
LL Harry Hamlin was a reveallllll. To me, he has always been Lisa Rinna’s unseen, Godot-like husband. The fact that he was as ’80s-hot as promised? Bless up.
MG I’m sorry to Jimmy Smits, but he will always be Senator Organa to me — Princess Leia’s adoptive father.
JW What does an old show need to make an impression now? Why have “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “The Golden Girls” and a few others from decades ago hung on in the streaming age?
SH A big part of that is, it just needs to be a sitcom. A show that makes you laugh stands the test of time.
CH I want to put forth the “Suits” theory. Netflix just had a huge hit with resurging interest in the 2010s legal drama. So I think Hulu tried to say, Hey, we have an even older legal drama. But “Suits” has the advantage of Meghan Markle taking the LSAT over and over.
LL Speaking of Jimmy Smits, I just wrapped my second rewatch of “The West Wing.”
MP Smits is one of those actors who’s the same in every character he plays, but it works. A cop, a lawyer, the president. He always has the same haircut, which I’ve never been able to describe. Is it a mullet? Is it feathered?
LL What it certainly is, on this show, at least, is a few inches above a stud earring.
MP Yes! Truly subversive.
MG I would describe that haircut as, “My Tito’s haircut when they stop caring about their hair and decide they want a motorcycle for their 50th birthday.”
LL For the number of micro-, macro- and in-between aggressions poor Victor put up with, he should’ve been able to have his septum pierced, if he wanted.
MP Can I ask the younger folks here, what are some of the older shows you’re watching?
SH I always turn to “Girlfriends” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Sitcoms! My comfort shows!
MG I’m diving into “The Nanny.” I grew up watching that show with my mom, but we didn’t have the luxury of streaming, and the story line was completely out of order.
JW So what’s the verdict on “L.A. Law”?
CH I liked it more than I thought I would. There are parts that made me go, “Yikes!”, but it helped me understand where soapy dramas, “Succession” included, come from. I doubt I’ll watch more but I don’t feel like “L.A. Law” and its schmaltzy saxophone should be swept into the dustbin of time.
LL It’s an artifact. A trapped-in-amber, predictably problematic, genuinely funny artifact, one that I’m leaning toward giving a few more episodes. Even if only to see more memos being jotted down for people “leaving word”!