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TV Law Shows Aim for Realism

Tonight's season premiere of `L.A. Law' focuses on that city's riots, lending a disturbing urgency to the show

LAWYERS endure on TV. We like to watch them at work on the tube because they represent the real world and the struggle for order, the defense of the innocent, and the hand of justice in our society. We identify with the defendant or the plaintiff, depending on who we think is right, and watch the dark-suited warriors fight for justice.

In the old days of television, the lawyer was always a hero. Today there is a bit more realism stirred into the formulas. The three best contemporary law shows on the air, "Civil Wars" (Wed. 10 p.m., ABC), "L.A. Law" (Thurs. 10 p.m., NBC), and "Law and Order" (Wed. 10 p.m., NBC), happily humanize the profession with their mix of stinkers as well as good guys. The lawyers are fascinating regardless of whether they are wrong or lose a case.

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The attitudes the shows represent cover the sociopolitical spectrum. "L.A. Law" tends to be liberal, "Law and Order" conservative, and "Civil Wars" tends to try for complexity. While both "L.A. Law" and "Law and Order" revel in moralistic pronouncements (from either side of the political spectrum), "Civil Wars" offers by far the most intricate, humane, and balanced interpretation of current social ills and events of the three shows.

"L.A. Law" sustains a large, highly varied cast without being entirely shallow, though the melodrama over the past six seasons has sometimes resembled the antics of a "Dallas."

The show sets its 7th season premiere tonight during the recent Los Angeles riots. While one of the lawyers is arrested in a liquor store after looters invade it, another is pulled from his expensive car and beaten senseless. The one black lawyer in the firm visits the district he is to represent in the city council and discovers it has been destroyed. His reaction to the riots is the most revelatory of all.

Using the riots as a plot device lends a disturbing realism to the show. The riots are one of the most significant events in recent Los Angeles history, and forcing the characters to respond is especially important. TV, after all, has a long history of personalizing and dramatizing headline social ills (AIDS and teen suicide, for example). But the show's writers could have been more careful not to exploit the fear and anger of the riots for their own purposes.

DESPITE its rather simplistic viewpoint, "Law and Order" has its strengths. In a recent episode, an extremist black leader is assassinated. The district attorney and the police are certain it was a white man, a jealous husband. But the man is acquitted because of insufficient evidence. The D.A. begins to doubt the white man's guilt and starts probing the leader's own organization. The program ends with the D.A. and police baffled, the guilty party uncaught.

While no person relishes an unsolved case, it is unusual to see a murder mystery like this that is not tied up in a pat ending. Such a treatment reflects the unresolved problems in society.

Unfortunately, many of the "Law and Order" programs I watched are less intelligently written than this one. The characters are underdeveloped, the cops arrogant and sometimes cynical, the D.A. self-important and moralistic. Most of the people they arrest are guilty - in the eyes of the police, if not always in ours.

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"Civil Wars" is the best of the three shows - on all counts. Each member of the cast has developed a full characterization; none is stereotypical or flat. What is more, the characters exhibit a lively intimacy, which is understood to be rooted in friendship and respect, but which is also open to surprises.

There are no easy answers in the series; ethics are complicated, and these lawyers agonize over them. The lawyers of "Civil Wars" are divorce lawyers. And the fact that they deal with so much human suffering provides a strangely revealing premise for the series. Instead of the self-conscious moralisms of "L.A. Law" and "Law and Order," Civil Wars offers a bit of perspective on human frailty. The writing is so good and the ensemble cast so intelligent that the show actually points out how to avoid some of

the petty domestic squabbles through basic kindness, tolerance, and a little compassion.

The mean-spirited, spiteful, and selfish people who parade through this law office may have reasons for their behavior, but it is made transparent to viewers. Even the victims of malice have something to learn.

All three shows underrepresent minorities, which brings them even closer to the realities of how few African Americans or Hispanics or Asians work in the legal profession. Where "Law and Order" is a man's world, however, the business-suited warriors of "L.A. Law" and "Civil Wars" number many women among them, and those they confront and defend are often women.

In "Civil Wars," where the conflict is always between marital partners, the writers have made an effort to uncover just where failures of communication exist between men and women.

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