When L.A. Law first appeared on NBC in 1986, its cold-eyed view of cold-blooded attorneys shocked an old TV genre into a new era of realism. In the 1980s, the idea of Perry Mason with his won-lost case record of 270-1 and his penchant for eliciting witness-stand confessions with the question ''Wasn't it you who killed her?'' suddenly seemed quaint. No longer would television lawyers serve as avatars of justice, briefcase-wielding gladiators, or de facto detectives. In their place came Arnie Becker, jockeying for his dead colleague's office space, and Douglas Brackman, counting pencils and pinching pennies. Instead of theatrics, scriptwriters offered ambiguity; instead of defending the status quo, shows promised to explore it.
This spring, two new shows, ABC's Equal Justice and NBC's Shannon's Deal, have arrived to take L.A. Law's revisionist view of the wheels of justice even further, with harsher, more jaundiced portrayals of the legal system and its sleazier practitioners. The suggestion that L.A. Law has lost some of its killer instinct in the last couple of years is not without reason. Nearly 100 episodes and almost as many awards into its run, L.A. Law (which airs Thursdays at 10 p.m.) has begun to rely on an updated but equally entrenched version of the Perry Mason formula: The lawyers we like are almost always on the right side, take almost every case to court, deliver their closing arguments in spectacular soliloquies, and, most of the time, win.
The lawyers on Equal Justice don't have that luxury: They're prosecutors. The format a group of young attorneys tackling two or three cases (or personal problems) each week is similar to L.A. Law's, but Justice (which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m.) is really a closer thematic cousin to Hill Street Blues. The two shows share geography an unnamed, racially divided Northeastern metropolis and a hybrid attitude: optimistic cynicism.
''To defend an innocent man is a noble and romantic endeavor,'' says Thomas Carter, TV's most successful pilot director (among the shows he launched were Miami Vice, St. Elsewhere, and Midnight Caller) and now the executive producer and guiding hand of Equal Justice. ''But most of the people ground through the system are not innocent. They're guilty to varying degrees.''
Accordingly, Equal Justice follows the daily travails of half a dozen lawyers in the DA's office as they slog through the courts, sobering up a witness for testimony, squeezing time out of a crowded docket, negotiating a plea, hacking through a pile of cases. Even the ethical issues tend to be grittier where L.A. Law's attorneys quarrel over whether to represent a firm that does business in South Africa, the Equal Justice-seekers worry about helping a drug-addicted informer feed his habit. Their moral dilemmas, Carter says, grow out of ''a struggle to have some faith in a system in which their witnesses today are their defendants tomorrow.''
When Carter visited courtrooms around the country, what he saw stunned him. ''I was not prepared for the number of cracks in the system,'' he recalls. ''People are tired and constantly trying to catch up with their caseloads. It's inevitable that when you're running that fast, you'll stumble.''
That weekly pattern of buckling, then staggering onward befits Equal Justice's overcast, polarized, often violent atmosphere. The lawbreakers here are rarely sympathetic and few of their crimes are white-collar. Not surprisingly, Justice uses dramatic trials as centerpieces. ''Our lawyers may lose more at this point, if we're keeping score,'' Carter says. The show also borrows one neo-clichéfrom L.A. Law: When lawyers lose a case they should have won in one recent episode, the system failed to protect a desperate woman from her violent husband vigilante justice steps in to do the job that statutes couldn't. Obviously, by-the-book legal realism isn't the standard; although Justice's staff includes two lawyers (one a scriptwriter, the other a technical adviser), Carter says the show has a nonspecific location to avoid ''being backed into the constraints of following the law of a particular city.''
Equal Justice's episodes often conclude on a note of cautious affirmation. ''The principles on which the justice system is founded are among the greatest known to man,'' Carter says. ''The difficulty is in serving them in modern society. I would hope that [viewers]will become familiar with some of the things that repeatedly go wrong, so that we can talk about repairing them.''
No such optimism about due process grips John Sayles, whose feature films Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988) were, in different contexts, explorations of the near-impossibility of obtaining justice. When Sayles sat down with NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff in 1987, the writer-director came up with a story about a lawyer who does everything he can to stay out of court.
The series Sayles created, Shannon's Deal, which finished its six-episode trial run on May 16, follows the minor misfortunes of an ex-corporate attorney. Principled, but not above gamesmanship, he now practices alone, building a poverty-row clientele in a tiny Philadelphia office. Shannon's credits recount his rapid rise in the corridors of power and concurrent spiritual fall: a moral tale with an '80s spin. ''To find some angle that you could play so that the odds were in your favor that's what the '80s were about,'' Sayles says. ''It happened in real estate, with savings and loans, and the lawyers were like sharks around a sinking ship: They always got fed. Lawyers were testing the envelope of what people would put up with. So of course people walk around thinking that there is no justice.''
Sayles has a kindred spirit in Stan Rogow, Shannon's executive producer and reluctant guardian of its legal verisimilitude. ''I used to be a lawyer,'' Rogow says, ''and I don't have a hell of a lot of respect for them, and I don't think the public does either. When I practiced law in Boston in the mid-'70s, the last thing I ever wanted to do was to go to court, because poor people tend to lose in court. So I'd go around and try to make a deal and hope that I could find someone to take it.''
Rogow calls Shannon's Deal an ''anti-law show,'' and it's close to true: Shannon has conspicuously avoided putting its hero in the service of headline cases or making him a spokesman for the finer principles of justice. Early episodes of the show have painted the legal system as a monstrous vortex that rarely serves its participants fairly. Shannon triumphs when he triumphs by dodging procedure and remaining slightly aloof from the letter of the law.
But the renegade outsider who battles a hostile establishment is as well-worn a TV icon as anything Sayles and Rogow are trying to escape, and Sayles admits that the show's writers will have to struggle to keep Shannon from becoming a typical antihero. ''Shannon's a fixer,'' he says. ''There are very few clear-cut victories in his life, and one of the only ones he gets is that his clients don't go to court. You can like Shannon, but you can't always come away thinking that [he] did the right thing or [he] won this one.''
Though Sayles will act as a creative consultant, Rogow's the one who will have to protect that characterization, and he vows that Shannon will never pace before a jury or rip a witness apart. ''We don't care to be doing a legal- oriented show,'' he says. ''In reality, after you explore your legal resources, what you discover a lot of the time is you're f----d. So sometimes you go to the edge of ethicality. Sometimes you make the wrong judgment.''
At the beginning of its run, L.A. Law had a similarly stringent, self-imposed mandate to examine the darker side of legal practice, but it soon became difficult for the writers to allow its attractive ensemble to behave in unattractive ways. After a few seasons, even L.A. Law's bad lawyers became so cuddly that the writers had to invent a new character, the unscrupulous tiger-woman Rosalind Shays, to revivify the show's central conflicts and reinstill the main characters with qualities self-interest, financial greed, personal ambition that had been politely suppressed.
L.A. Law also has wandered far in search of attention-getting court cases: Recent plot lines have included mercy killings, child murders, messy divorces, white-supremacist assaults, people who want to be cryogenically frozen, airplane shootdowns, South American torture-squad victims, dirty-videotape scandals. They're ripped from today's headlines all of today's headlines. Law's executive producer, David E. Kelley, an attorney-turned- screenwriter who steered the show this season, admits that McKenzie, Brackman's versatility is a stretch. ''I don't think we've ever rejected a story because our law firm couldn't do that,'' he says. ''Our lawyers do seem to be able to take on almost any case.''
If Equal Justice and Shannon's Deal return next fall with fair ratings and strong reviews, both shows are uncertain prospects they may join a new corps of TV lawyers (the networks have half a dozen law series in development) in a genre that commands undiminished public enthusiasm. They'll also join one very old one: Thirty-four years after his first TV appearance, Perry Mason will continue to practice law in a series of TV movies on NBC, and, impervious to the ravages of time, realism, or ambiguity, he'll undoubtedly win every case.