Today, we look at how the sexy mystery of “The Venus Butterfly” on L.A. Law captivated the nation
This is “All the Best Things,” a spotlight on the best TV episodes, movies, albums, etc.
The interesting thing to me about “The Venus Butterfly,” the ninth episode of the first season of L.A. Law (or tenth if you count the two-hour pilot as two episodes) that aired as part of November Sweeps in 1986, is that the episode really isn’t better than the episodes that proceeded it. In fact, the whole reason why the episode is so famous is because the show was already a major sensation, so that this episode was able to be seen by a large audience based on the show’s already impressive following.
However, I mean, come on, it is almost forty years later, and this (and a famous departure of a recurring character in Season 5) is what the show is still best known for, so how can I not use it as the first example from L.A. Law?
The episode was written by the series’ creators, Terry Louise Fisher and Stephen Bochco, and directed by the great Donald Petrie.
A quick refresher on L.A. Law. The series followed a boutique law firm in Los Angeles, McKenzie, Brackman, Cheney and Kusak, and their various court cases (plus the personal lives of the lawyers in the firm). Up until this point, while there had been plenty of legal shows on television, shows really didn’t have much success detailing the practice of law outside of criminal cases. There were lots of Perry Masons, but there weren’t a whole lot of Arnie Beckers out there, the sleazy divorce attorney played so wonderfully by Corbin Bernsen.
McKenzie, Brackman, Cheney and Kuzak, at the start of the series, consisted of partners Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart), the wise old senior partner, Douglas Brackman (Alan Rachins), the officious managing partner whose father had formed the firm with Leland, Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin), the firm’s star litigator who would often take high profile pro bono criminal cases, and Norman Chaney, the firm’s high profile tax attorney who dropped dead in the series premiere. The firm had to replace Chaney, so Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker) and Anne Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry), longtime associates (Stuart was Chaney’s protege in tax law, while Cheney was a corporate attorney who wanted to do more litigation), were moved up to partners. At the same time, Stuart and Anne started a love affair (Tucker and Eikenberry were, and still are, married in real life). The final major part of the pilot was the addition of Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits), a talented public defender who Michael respected, to the firm as a litigation associate, and the promotion of law clerk Abby Perkins (Michelle Greene) to associate, as well. So you’d have the different experience levels of the firm spotlighted every episode.
After the pilot, the network clearly said “Hey, the show needs more sexiness,” so Bochco and Fisher added a romantic lead for the series, with District Attorney Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey), an old flame of Kuzak’s who slowly gets back together with him. Kuzak gets Grace to leave her fiancee at the altar and run away with him, who was dressed in a gorilla suit at the time (it was probably the show’s first truly iconic moment).
Okay, so that brings us to “The Venus Butterfly,” which won Fisher and Bochco an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. The main plot of the episode involved Grace prosecuting a man for killing his lover, who was dying of AIDS. The great Stanley Kamel played the man’s lawyer, an gay advocate who attacked the case with a righteous vengeance, making Grace feel pretty terrible about prosecuting it, but she stuck to the whole “The law is the law is the law” deal. This stuff was all handled quite well, and you have to give them some credit for doing a nice job with an AIDs plot in 1986.
The show is best remembered, though, for the side plot, of Arnie representing a client who turned out to be married to a polygamist, who had at least ELEVEN wives. They were all initially unwilling to go after the guy (who would steal from the various wives and give the stolen items to the other wives, while living off of the insurance payouts for the stolen items) until Stuart (on the case because of the various tax implications) vociferously compels them all to go after the guy, telling them that they are deluding themselves to still care about their mutual husband. When Stuart meets the guy, though, he’s a pretty ordinary looking dude. He explains to Stuart that it all comes down to this special move he uses in bed called, you guessed it, the Venus Butterfly. He decides to share the move with Stuart, since he trusts him and he relates to him, being a relatively inconspicuous guy himself.
There is a minor subplot about Arnie, Anne and Stuart fighting over who gets Chaney’s now-available office. Stuart wins, and Anne is moping about it. She is also in a terrible mood because Abby’s son had been kidnapped by her ex-husband, and there were reports from the local hospital of a boy who matched the description of Abby’s son who was brought in after being heavily beaten. The boy died, but the hospital has misplaced the corpse (and eventually accidentally cremated it), tormenting Abby, and leaving Anne in a lousy mood because she had helped Abby through it all. So when Stuart offers to take her to a fancy hotel that night, Anne is not only not interested, she’s angry that Stuart would be thinking about sex at the moment. Stuart calms her down, and explains that nothing has to happen. She is going to have dinner that night, right? She concedes that yes, she will, so he say, okay, then we’ll just have dinner at a fancy hotel!
She agrees, and obviously they DO have sex and Anne is stunned by the Venus Butterfly. She first assumes that Stuart must be seeing another woman to have learned this move, but he tells her he is not. She notes that she fainted at one point during their lovemaking. She then asks him to do it again, and notes that he better not use this move on anyone but her. The couple eventually get married.
Naturally, the country was captivated by “The Venus Butterfly.” Plots like this were relatively rare on TV shows at the time, and since the show was already such a big hit (and Grace and Kuzak’s relationship was already pretty steamy, so it was already known for being a show that involved sex a lot in the plot), a very large segment of the TV viewing audience got to see it, so it became a “thing.” It even worked its way into Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s love life in the Spider-Man comic book series. Of course, Fisher didn’t have a specific sex move in mind when she came up with the move, it being a mystery is the whole point of the story. People can just imagine crazier stuff that she could ever think of herself.
Okay, if I’m going to have 341 more of these, I could use suggestions, so feel free to email me at email@example.com!