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'The Practice' Almost Makes Perfect


Television can't have too much of a good thing. So roll out the red carpet for "The Practice," even if this spirited new ABC drama getting a tryout in the "NYPD Blue" time slot is prime time's umpteenth legal series of the '90s.

Executive producer David E. Kelley adds to his superior credits ("L.A. Law," "Picket Fences," "Chicago Hope") with this very appealing rendering of legal commandos who practice law largely by the seats of their pants in chaotic Boston offices that look like an unmade bed. The cast is good, the stories arresting and the characters compelling, most notably Bobby Donnel (Dylan McDermott), who heads this band of attorneys that one of his colleagues, Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim), cynically labels a "bottom-feeding-do-whatever-you-can-to-get-your-client-off law firm."

So much for glamour.

In fact, "The Practice" tries mightily to deglamorize the law, and in the process delivers an entertaining hour in which Bobby's ragtag underdogs stand firm against one Goliath after another. In tonight's premiere, that includes green attorney Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) combating a giant tobacco company defended by her sniffy, condescending former law professor (Edward Herrmann) in a lawsuit from a plaintiff who blames the cigarette manufacturer for the death of his heavy smoking wife.

Meanwhile, a 17-year-old girl who emphatically claims she is innocent refuses Bobby's repeated advice to take a plea bargain in a drug-related case that he believes he can't win. Adding to his client's and Bobby's problems is the pasting he gets from a tough judge (memorably played by Linda Hunt). Thus, he knows that to get the defendant off, he must "give the closing [argument] of my life."

Does he? Uh, next question.

Based on initial episodes, "The Practice" is a good series stopped mostly by its predictability from being very, very good. So never count out either Bobby or Lindsay, although the latter appears overmatched against the tobacco giant even when getting assistance from her savvy colleague, Eugene Young (Steve Harris).

Also on the negative side, Bobby appears to commit an ethics no-no in a future episode by rejecting a substantial settlement in a civil case without consulting his client, and "The Practice" resorts to occasional hoakiness in the courtroom.

Even though it may not always practice good law, however, it practices good television, intelligently and sometimes with a sense of humor, evidenced by a future episode that finds Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco), the firm's low-rung lawyer by default, taking to the airwaves to advertise for business.

Unlike NBC's oft-brilliant "Law & Order," this series is much less interested in the fabric, complex threads and inner lining of the legal process than in the nubby surface of that process. Other such series have followed that formula, but few as rewardingly as the legal bottom-feeders of "The Practice."


What to make of NBC's new comedy series "Just Shoot Me"? It's an enigma, at the very least uneven. Tonight's premiere and a second episode furnished for review are mildly amusing at best. But a third episode is very funny. So go figure.

The setting is the New York editorial offices of Blush, a women's fashion magazine that preaches shallowness and narcissism. The publisher is Jack Gallo (George Segal), the newest staff writer his daughter, Maya (Laura San Giacomo), a serious journalist who has suspended her high standards to work, out of financial need, for a magazine she despises and the disinterested father she barely knows. Her sanity contrasts with the instability of most everyone else surrounding her.

Filling out the office, in addition to air-headed leggy models, are vain and insecure beauty and fashion editor Nina Van Horn (Wendie Malick), photographer Elliott DiMauro (Enrico Colantoni) and Dennis Finch (David Spade), the snide, twirpy office secretary.

Ever in close touch with his inner child, oft-wed Jack is now married to one of Maya's former high school classmates, who has just given birth to a daughter. When Jack boasts about the infant burping in a future episode, Nina responds with mockery: "I'll call Mensa."

On the other hand, tensions between Jack and Maya rarely yield humor tonight, nor do the neuroses of Nina and Dennis, the latter a trademark Spade character whose irritating nastiness is acceptable in only small doses. Nonetheless, viewers will get an overdose in a coming episode centering on his embarrassment about being a secretary.

The creator of "Just Shoot Me" is Steve Levitan, his effort here initially falling far short of his best previous work on NBC's "Frasier" and HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show." The future episode that is funny finds Maya having a sex dream about Elliott that the catty Finch learns about. Deftly written by Levitan, it succeeds in part by having the show's broadest characters orbit around the straightest ones, instead of vice versa.

The rest of the previewed "Just Shoot Me," though, is nothing to call Mensa about.

* "The Practice" premieres tonight at 10 on ABC (Channel 7). "Just Shoot Me" previews tonight at 9:30 on NBC (Channel 4) and premieres in its regular time slot Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.

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