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Boston Law

March 02, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Does television really need another one-hour dramatic series about lawyers? Probably not, but ABC is testing the waters to find out whether viewers want a new one. It's "The Practice," one of 10 series premiering in prime time this week.

Both the creator and the star of "The Practice" believe their show differs from the usual legal eagle fare.

"It's really about the practice of law," explains David E. Kelley, the series' Emmy Award-winning creator and executive producer. Kelley was responsible for some of the best and most imaginative episodes of "L.A. Law" (remember the Cane toad installment?) and created the acclaimed "Picket Fences" and the current CBS hit "Chicago Hope."

"The Practice," he adds, is not an issue-oriented show. "Certainly issues will come up from time to time, but it's not about big trials," says Kelley, who was a Boston-based attorney before turning to TV. "You'll see the underbelly side of law, which is not glamorous."

Dylan McDermott, who plays Bobby Donnell--an earnest defense attorney at a small Boston law firm--says the series finally shows viewers "what lawyers really do, as opposed to the glitz and glamour of an 'L.A. Law' or the slickness of a 'Murder One.' "

Adds Kelley: "The look will set it apart." With a lot of law shows, he says, young viewers are enticed to consider a career as a lawyer simply because of "the suggestion of money and a nice lifestyle. There will be no such suggestion here. It will be, like, 'Who needs that?' "

"The Practice," which also stars Steve Harris, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Kelli Williams and Camryn Manheim, will be hanging out its shingle at the prestigious "NYPD Blue" time period for the next six weeks. Kelley is happy with his high-profile slot but realizes it's only a temporary home.

"It's a great place to be sampled, but I'm always a bit wary of shows that debut in time slots of other programs, especially popular programs," he says. "Clearly, the audience knows that it is a borrowed space and we are just leasing it. It would be nice if, when the audience tuned in, they could get the sense that it was its final home."

After the six initial shows air, Kelley says, "anything can happen" with the remaining seven that already are completed. "Various scenarios have been played out," he explains. "One of them is that we could move to Wednesday night immediately or we could wait until after the May sweeps and go back on Tuesday nights. I would prefer to save the rest [for next season], so instead of just having 22, we could have 28 [episodes]. To have 28 or 29 in the bank for a season is a nice luxury."

"The Practice" marks the first series for McDermott ("In the Line of Fire," "Hamburger Hill"). He wasn't looking to move to television, but when he read Kelley's pilot script he was hooked.

"I knew instantly it was for me," he says. "I feel like your whole career you look for that signature piece, and I felt this was the closest thing for me. Just to have David Kelley write for me each week--I don't think you can ask for anything better than that."

McDermott already had done a lot of legal research for his attorney roles in "Steel Magnolias" and "Miracle on 34th Street."

"But I look for one real person when I do any role," he says. For "The Practice," he found a Boston attorney "who had given up practice because of the corruption he felt inside himself and the police department. I really identified with his ethic and morality, so I based my character pretty much on him."

Though Bobby seems at times to be too good to be true in the early episodes, McDermott says Kelley provided his character with a lot of shortcomings. "As the episodes go on, you actually see my associates call me into question for some of the things that I have done. I am really happy that [Kelley] did that, because I was afraid of becoming too noble in a way. I have a fight with a judge and I do precarious things."

Kelley says there will be some of his trademark quirkiness in the series, but it is based much more in reality than was "Picket Fences."

"The ensuing episodes are probably funnier than the first five or six," he says. "That was really by design. We needed to establish the arena as a real one and to play the humor off of that as opposed to 'Picket Fences,' which from the beginning we sold as a bit of a distortion of the real world. The audience wasn't asked to believe that Rome, Wis., was a real place."

In the case of "The Practice,' Kelley says, "it's important for the series to really feel like you are walking into a law firm that has the tremendous capacity to be boring and dry, so when aberrant things happen, your point of reference will be established and grounded in a real environment."

Both McDermott and Kelley acknowledge that it was difficult to film 13 episodes without having the series on the air to get viewer feedback. "I wouldn't want to go through it again, to tell the truth," says McDermott.

"You are doing it in a vacuum," Kelley adds. "When you are [broadcast during] production, you get an adrenaline rush from the feedback, especially when you are tired and you think you can't go on. We were making it and having to rely on our own instincts that we were doing more good than bad."

On the plus side, however, Kelley says he had unlimited postproduction time to fine-tune the episodes. "I have never had that kind of situation before," he says. "It's always been kind of a race to the deadline for your air date. This was nice to be able to go back to fix a scene or add a scene in an episode."

"The Practice" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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