Lift manufacturers across the globe would probably wish me to point out that it is impossible to fall down a lift shaft in the manner in which Rosalind Shays meets her spagbol end, halfway through season five of mid-80s legal drama LA Law. They would like it to be known that modern lifts are designed with a series of interlocking gears, rendering the opening of the door impossible unless it is in contact with the lift chamber. Still, why let a few engineers spitting out their tea stop one of the greatest write-outs in primetime history?
Over five seasons, Rosalind Shays (played by Diana Muldaur) had become the one whom people loved to hate. Stroppy, manipulative, icy, queen bitch, but always getting her mark. This truculent antagonist had bedded affable dad figure Leland McKenzie in another superb twist, elbowed her way to becoming a partner, then turned round and sued the law firm for sexual discrimination. What a cow! Yet her end – failing to look before she enters a lift – was so chillingly random that it rendered viewers sympathetic. What had we done? We’d killed her. We’d murdered her with our hate. Making your audience feel culpable? Now that’s inspired writing.
LA Law always trod the line between gritty and supersoap with a delicacy that was its charm. You tuned in to watch the bleak courtroom collisions – Jimmy Smits doing his tough-guy routine over an incest-murder case – but you always knew you’d get plenty of lather and spice along the way. In an early episode, light-relief pudgepot Stuart Markowitz starts an unlikely affair with Jill Eikenberry’s character Ann Kelsey. When they discussed a fictional sexual technique – the “Venus Butterfly” – NBC was flooded with requests for more information. Law’s co-creator Steve Bochco’s formula laid the groundwork for a decade of telly: ER is basically LA Law in green gowns.
At this distance, we’re trained to see Dynasty as the spirit of the 80s. But, really, LA Law was a level of “aspirational” that it was possible to aspire to. Almost no one could be Joan Collins douching with diamonds, but you could see yourself as Grace Van Owen’s forever-lunching legal eagle.Rosalind’s plummet was a cautionary tale for lift-users and writers alike. It was far too random. The deus had met the machina, and now the genie would not go back in the bottle, any more than Rosalind’s shattered tibia, cranium, jaw, sternum, intercostals, spleen and intestinal tract could be re-knitted. With the rules of their world going out of the window, things took a turn for the silly. New characters were written in. Old friends seemed to disappear more and more. Who were all these people? An air of Agatha Christie gripped proceedings. Season seven opened with the sudden departure of CJ Lamb, Van Owen and Susan Bloom. In the same episode, Stuart and Douglas get caught up in the LA riots. The topical tint that had made it so addictive had become a clumsy crowbar. By then, Jimmy Smits had gone off to make another show about law, but not in LA. In NYC. And not with lawyers, with cops. That show was NYPD Blue. Viewers soon followed him and turned over.