Suits, which originally ran on the USA network from 2011 to 2019, began streaming on Netflix this past June. To everyone’s surprise, the legal drama discovered a brand new audience and became one of the streamer’s most watched properties. In July, Suits boasted 3.7 billion views across Peacock, where it also streams, and Netflix. With two labor strikes dominating the industry, the success of Suits was the feel-good entertainment story of the summer. It also highlighted exactly what the strikes were about as it laid bare how little the show’s writers profited from its newfound popularity.
The initial surge of interest in the series could have been attributed to the Meghan Markle factor. Before she married Prince Harry, Markle played paralegal Rachel Zane on the series for seven seasons. But the continued interest in the series is probably more about our collective desire for legal dramas. There is something immensely satisfying in watching justice get served — even fictional justice. Suits, of course, is just one of many successful legal dramas, along with The Practice, Boston Legal, The Good Wife, and the more recent The Lincoln Lawyer, that have captured viewer attention over the years.
But until last week, viewers hadn’t been able to fully enjoy the series that started it all: L.A. Law. The NBC legal drama, which ran from 1986 to 1994, has been fully digitally remastered by its latest streaming home, Hulu, with a 16:9 aspect ratio and all its original music intact. Its colors are now vibrant. Its iconic music, once more crisp. Surprisingly, the drama also arrived with little fanfare, nothing approximating the recent hullabaloo surrounding Moonlighting’s debut on the streaming platform. As of this writing, you won’t find L.A. Law, which won the Emmy award for Outstanding Drama four times, on Hulu’s landing page. And that is a shame. The popularity of Suits on Netflix has proven that viewers are hungry for this type of television, perhaps now more than ever with the SAG-AFTRA strike going on for well over 100 days.
Watching L.A. Law in 2023 is a bit of a surreal experience. Some aspects of the series — like the wardrobe and the hairstyles — are dated, freezing the show in time. The opening moments of the pilot episode find Corbin Bersen’s Arnie Becker driving to work listening to Rick Dees on the radio. One look at Michele Greene’s lavender suit and ruffled blouse and you will hear the ‘80s calling. Then there are things like the surprising use of a racial slur in the show’s third episode (uttered by guest star Mario Van Peebles), something that would never be allowed on broadcast television today — at least, not without a disclaimer.
But the cases the lawyers of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak deal with could be storylines in a contemporary legal drama. There’s the insurance company that declines coverage to a woman with a brain tumor, a spoiled twentysomething who avoids a rape conviction after the victim is put on trial, and the woman who doesn’t want to believe that her husband is cheating on her until she gets photographic proof.
The personal lives of the lawyers could also take place in 2023. There’s law intern Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) whose husband is an abusive alcoholic. Legal hotshot Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin) who romances District Attorney Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey) even though she’s engaged to someone else. Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) is the savvy divorce attorney who is also a relentless womanizer. Lawyers Ann Kelsey and Stuart Markowitz (played by real-life couple Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker) balance a burgeoning relationship with working together.
In its heyday, the show, from co-creators Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher (who was fired after the show’s second season and went on to sue the studio and Bochco), was magical and groundbreaking. Over the course of eight seasons, there was very little it shied away from, tackling storylines involving euthanasia, abortion, postpartum psychosis, AIDS, racism, and homophobia, among other topical issues. It featured the first romantic kiss between two women on TV in the fifth season. The cases were often outlandish, including one in which a client of Arnie’s believes her husband is having an affair with a pig. (And in classic L.A. Law form, the show never confirmed whether the wife’s suspicions were justified or not).
Before L.A. Law, legal dramas were more about the savvy lawyer solving the crime (see the original Perry Mason) and less about the messy personal lives of the lawyers. This idea of mixing emotional strife of the characters with the cases of the week was rather novel. In addition to legal dramas, medical dramas like E.R. and Grey’s Anatomy and police dramas like N.Y.P.D. Blue would follow L.A. Law’s blueprint of drama, humor, suspense, and shocking plot twists.
L.A. Law has been available on Prime Video since August 1 of this year, albeit in the old aspect ratio of 4:3 — meaning two thick black columns appear on either side of the screen, and the action on screen looks rather distorted. The way the show was filmed doesn’t mix well with modern, high-definition TV. The other problem is the wear and tear on the existing footage: When we are first introduced to Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits, in the role that propelled him to fame), he almost looks blurry, his surroundings faded. Now, thanks to Hulu, except for the aforementioned wardrobe and hairstyle choices and seeing younger versions of familiar faces, the show looks like it could take place today.
With L.A. Law restored to how it was meant to be watched, viewers can fully appreciate the show’s iconic moments, like the one in Season 5’s “Good to the Last Drop.” Even if you’ve never watched a minute of L.A. Law, you’ve probably heard of this episode, which sees the much despised Rosalind Shays’ (Diana Muldaur) fateful fall down an elevator shaft. Rosalind chats with Leland (Richard Dysart) about their failed romantic relationship — she wanted to get married and he realized he wasn’t in love with her — when she goes to step into the elevator and falls to her death.
It’s an incredibly shocking moment, and before the series arrived on Hulu, the old aspect ratio and fuzzy-looking film would have distracted from this positively landmark television moment. Now you can truly enjoy it in all its over-the-top, campy glory.
The same is true for the Season 1 episode,“The Venus Butterfly.” Arnie and Stuart bring a class action suit against a man who has many, many wives. They can’t figure out what all these women see in this man until they learn he’s perfected a sexual move known as “The Venus Butterfly.” With the show looking downright new, there’s nothing to distract from the humor and the surprising pathos of the episode.
That’s why now is the time to discover (or rediscover) L.A. Law. To be charmed by Arnie Becker. To meet a young Blair Underwood. To marvel at just how many before-they-were famous guest stars the show had (Alfre Woodard, Lucy Liu, and David Schwimmer, to name a few). To be shocked by some of the unlikely romances. And to marvel at how many of the show’s plot lines unknowingly foreshadowed the future.
Last year, ABC passed on the L.A. Law sequel that would have been headlined by Underwood and Bernsen. Here’s hoping L.A. Law experiences a Suits-like resurgence and maybe, just maybe, that sequel gets a second look.
Amy Amatangelo is a writer and editor. In addition to Primetimer, her work can be found in Paste Magazine, Emmy Magazine and the LA Times. She also is the Treasurer of the Television Critics Association.