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Michael Asimow



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I'm happy to see balanced presentations of law firms. The usual pop culture approach to law firms is to portray them as nests of unadulterated evil.

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By Michael Asimow

What if you took the law firm of McKenzie, Brackman from L. A. Law and fast-forwarded it to the year 2030? You'd have a law firm a lot like the firm in CBS' promising new law series Century City.

L. A. Law's successful run lasted from 1986 until 1994 . The show was a real breakthrough for law-oriented TV programming. It dealt with law the way it's practiced today--in firms and for profit--and thus updated the stale Perry Mason-Matlock format. Its crew of appealing actors worked well together in ensemble form. Each week the show tackled interesting legal and ethical issues. It didn't neglect the personal lives of the lawyers. L.A. Law usually presented enough toothsome legal issues to make it worth watching, even if you didn't care about the characters' sex lives. Generically L.A. Law was a workplace drama, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, E. R., or M*A*S*H, in which the characters' personal and professional lives revolve around their place of employment.

Century City seems consciously modeled on L. A. Law. We're going to learn a lot about the personal lives of the lawyers. And the characters seem strangely familiar. There's the avuncular senior partner-Leland McKenzie becomes Martin Constable. Or the cynical, money-grubbing, sexually harassing partner-Douglas Brackman becomes Darwin McNeil. There's ethnic diversity - Jonathan Rollins becomes Hannah Crane. And ambitious female associates-Ann Kelsey and Abby Perkins become Lee May Bristol (who's genetically engineered to be the perfect lawyer). We've got idealistic young lawyers-Michael Kuzak becomes Lukas Gold-and aggressive but principled prosecutors-Grace Van Owen becomes Matthew Chin.

The firm of Crane, Constable, McNeil & Montero firm is set right smack in the same neck of the woods as L. A. Law-Century City is a hive of corporate law firms about 10 miles west of downtown L. A. As in L.A. Law, the Constable firm is small, hungry for business, and definitely upscale. Its beautiful office space in Century City is nothing like the crummy Boston office in The Practice.

The original twist in Century City is that it marries the sci-fi genre with the law genre by setting the time ahead to 2030. There's lots of neat little futuristic tricks like virtual reality pretrial conferences with the judge, much better video games and cosmetic surgery, super-duper genetic technology, and cherries without pits. The only implausible premise is that L. A. has a cool monorail system. Dream on.

You know what? I liked the premiere episode and I'm rooting for the Crane, Constable firm-and the show-to succeed. It's just so much better than the unlamented Ally McBeal or the really dumb law firm series that appeared and swiftly disappeared in the last few years (The Girls' Club, The First Years).

I think the idea of focusing on cutting-edge bio-tech issues is promising. Both the premiere's serious A story (having to do with organ harvesting from cloned embryos) and humorous B story (concerning a contract whereby members of a rock band promise to stay eternally young) were pretty interesting. There is a wealth of good story ideas here. I like the struggle between the business and professional models of law firms, as young associate Lukas Gold persuades the reluctant older heads that he should take on a big pro bono case. I liked the way the young lawyers talk about why they became lawyers and the partners talk about the stresses of law practice.

And I'm happy to see balanced presentations of law firms. The usual pop culture approach to law firms is to portray them as nests of unadulterated evil. John Grisham does this in nearly every one of his books. Films like The Devil's Advocate, The Firm, Regarding Henry, Philadelphia and numerous others drum out variations on this theme. David Kelley's The Girl's Club was more of the same. Now, I'm no fan of large law firms, but they're not that bad. Century City, like L.A. Law before it, keeps things in perspective. Like the hospitals, police stations, space ships, TV studios, and the other sites of workplace television drama, there is good and bad in law firms and in the lawyers who play out their personal and professional existences there.

So more power to you Century City! May you find your audience before you're bleeped by low ratings.

Posted: April 1, 2004

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