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Revamped 'Practice' finds right mix

September 27, 2003|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

In the increasingly take-no-prisoners business of television, there are precedents for keeping a long-running series fresh by replacing departing cast members. "NYPD Blue," "ER" and "Law & Order" have been repeatedly reenergized by the addition of new regulars. Usually, cast changes are made one character at a time. At the end of its seventh year, "The Practice's" whole A team was wiped out (well, actually, let go), a bloodletting aimed at reducing costs and reinvigorating a tired format.

The new season begins on ABC on Sunday with former stars Dylan McDermott, Lara Flynn Boyle, Kelli Williams, Marla Sokoloff and Lisa Gay Hamilton all banished to Seattle, or wherever the wayward citizens of soap operas used to move when actors' contracts weren't renewed. The housecleaning accomplishes exactly what was intended. "The Practice" is good, provocative television again, distinguished by creator David E. Kelley's ability to navigate shifts from funny to serious that would stymie less capable hands.

The moral dilemmas and frustrations of working lawyers have been an important element of the drama from the get-go, and that focus is rededicated. The essential question nonlawyers ask criminal defense attorneys, "How can you represent the scum of the earth?" always hovered in the show's subtext. So did its corollary: How can you sleep at night, knowing a murderer/rapist/thief is on the street because you did your job well?

In the first episode, one predicament is typically thorny: Eugene (Steve Harris) and Jimmy (Michael Badalucco) defend a woman who indisputably shot a neighborhood drug dealer in broad daylight. It is difficult not to be sympathetic to her plight; she's a frustrated parent, living in terror in a community the police neglect. Yet if she's found not guilty, the jury would be both nullifying the law and condoning vigilantism.

The battling lawyers of Young, Frutt and Berluti are realists trying their best in an imperfect system. They are also fierce competitors whose highest calling is often winning. Their newest colleague, Alan Shore, arrives one step ahead of a pesky little embezzlement matter at his last job. (We can buy his being hired, because it's been established that a current of absurdity, not just the river Charles, flows under Boston.) James Spader is magnificent as Shore.

His manner -- or is it his delivery? -- is reminiscent of Richard Fish, the twisted yuppie misogynist of "Ally McBeal." Like Fish, who also sprang from Kelley's fervid imagination, Shore hides his creeping decency behind an obnoxious, glib facade. Although ethically challenged, he's hilariously unpredictable and he's as smart as TiVo. Perhaps only a limited supply of energy and passion could be released on the networks at 10 p.m. Sundays. Unfortunately for Rob Lowe, stuck in "The Lyon's Den" over on NBC, Spader got it all.

Arguably, the convoluted personal problems of "The Practice's" lawyers were never its strength. The mature series' disease of visiting a ridiculous number of love affairs and calamities on a small group of characters was spreading like flesh-eating bacteria. The core cast members were raped, stalked, blackmailed and seduced and that was just the beginning.

The firm's caseload includes crimes ranging from plausible to preposterous, and some of each variety are committed by fascinating monsters. In the Scott Peterson-like story that's introduced in the opening hour, Chris O'Donnell plays a handsome egomaniac charged with murdering his pregnant wife. If he isn't as innocent as he claims, he might be worthy of a place in the firm's gallery of sociopaths.

The producers were buying some extra insurance by peopling early episodes with stars like O'Donnell and Sharon Stone, who's in a three-episode arc that begins next week. Spader, in fast-paced stories laced with quirky humor and complex issues, would have been enough.


'The Practice'

Where: ABC.

When: 10-11 p.m. Sundays.

Rating: The network has rated Sunday's episode TV-14V (may not be suitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for violence).

Steve Harris...Eugene Young

Camryn Manheim...Ellenor Frutt

Michael Badalucco...Jimmy Berluti

Jessica Capshaw...Jamie Stringer

James Spader...Alan Shore

Rhona Mitra...Tara Wilson

Creator, writer, David E. Kelley. Executive producers, Kelley and Robert Breech. Director, Dennis Smith.

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