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TV Review: 'L.A. Law' tries to make a case for reunion movies

Friday, May 10, 2002

By Rob Owen Post-Gazette TV Editor

"L.A. Law: The Movie" (9 p.m. Sunday) plays like just another episode of "L.A. Law" the series.

It's not "L.A. Law" at its David E. Kelley-scripted, Rosalind Shays-plunging-down-an-elevator-shaft best, but it's not the desperate, grasping latter years either when producers added a blond, conservative Christian lawyer to the cast of characters. It's mediocre "L.A. Law."

Enjoyable as it is to spend time with these familiar characters again, they're trapped in a plot that takes turns both surprisingly cruel and ridiculously pandering. The courtroom scenes, in particular, pale compared to the good ol' days of this series, especially an ending straight out of "Perry Mason" or "Matlock."

Written by William Finkelstein, a former "L.A. Law" executive producer, the movie begins with Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) in the midst of divorce proceedings -- again.

Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry) and Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker) have embraced a spiritual guru, Douglas Brackman Jr. (Alan Rachins) runs the firm following the retirement of patriarch Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart), who gets dragged back to the office in this movie.

Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin), long out of the legal profession, returns to help save a former client who's about to be executed. Going into court he faces off against former lover Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey).

Office manager Roxanne (Susan Ruttan) and assistant Benny (Larry Drake) also return in this movie along with Roxanne's ex-husband Dave Meyer (Dann Florek), Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) and late-in-the-series lawyer Eli Levinson (Alan Rosenberg), who transferred to "L.A. Law" after the cancellation of "Civil Wars."

The most notable absences are Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits), Jonathan Rollins (Blair Underwood) and Tommy Mullaney (John Spencer).

Despite so many characters to write for, Finkelstein's script does a decent job of servicing most of them, particularly those still working at the firm. Some of the dialogue has the same spark as it did in the series ("If I didn't know you better, I'd admire you," Abby says to Douglas), and the characters stay true to what was established during the show's eight-season run.

Reunion movies are always tricky. Producers have to juggle audience expectations regarding the characters with a plot that makes a reunion logical and worthwhile. "L.A. Law" succeeds on the former, but fails on the latter.

'Telling Nicholas'
(10 p.m. Sunday, HBO)

What a Mother's Day present.

HBO's latest "America Undercover" documentary is designed to elicit tears, but instead it generates sadness through voyeurism, a creepy combo.

Last year on Sept. 12, Manhattan-based writer/director/producer James Ronald Whitney scanned "missing" posters for news of people he knew. Instead, he was drawn to a poster seeking information on 36-year-old Michele Lanza, who worked in one of the World Trade Center towers. She was pictured with her 7-year-old son, Nicholas.

Whitney has some nerve. He picks up his camera and heads for Staten Island to interview the family during their tragic time. Press notes indicate he called first, but on screen it looks like he waltzed right up to the house.

"I've been to most of the Third World countries, so I can learn from people who still appreciate life's most basic things like food, shelter and clothing," he says with an air of superiority.

Whitney also says he's comfortable in modest environments. By that he must mean the Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt he wears at one point and his alternating blue-tinted and yellow-tinted glasses.

There could be some value in documenting the specific impact of Sept. 11 on a family devastated by the attacks. But "Telling Nicholas" feels intrusive and exploitative, especially when Whitney brings in a TV psychologist shown as a guest on "Ricki Lake."

The documentary itself takes on a talk show feel when viewers meet Michele's family, including her self-described "oddball" sister and Michele's estranged husband. Another sister goes into a catatonic state (Whitney never follows up to show whether she recovered) and Michele's mother faints several times.

"She's lost somewhere in the city and she's coming back to us," Michele's mother says just a few days after the attack.

Denial gives way to hysteria and ultimately crushing sadness and it just all feels too intimate, too private, something we shouldn't witness.

That's especially true of the scenes of Nicholas.

"My mom got missing," he says. "I'm thinking that she's in Jersey now."

Interwoven in Nicholas' story is another tale of loss, a Muslim family who lost their father/husband in the attack. This family doesn't come off as quite so dysfunctional, so the icky feeling momentarily dissipates. The filmmaker's intent is an obvious, politically correct attempt to discourage prejudices, but the dead man's 16-year-old son is so articulate these segments don't come off as manufactured and disingenuous.

Back in Michele's neighborhood, Dr. Gilda counsels Nicholas' father on breaking the news to the boy.

"A little 7-year-old's whole life may depend upon how you're going to position this fact and support it," she says. No pressure there.

The cameras roll, from a distance (but not a discreet distance), as Nicholas gets the news, which leads to tears and whimpers. And then ...

"Dad, will you find us a new wife?" Nicholas says. "How 'bout we do it tomorrow."

There are good intentions behind "Telling Nicholas," but is it fair for a family and filmmaker to make this good-natured boy a poster child for the thousands who lost parents? It's a question with no easy answer.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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