KATE WALSH'S Addison Forbes Montgomery (formerly Shepherd) wouldn't have been my first guess as to who would be the agent of a "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff, but she's a good choice, and I am glad for her sake that she is getting out of there. Of all the mopey players in that cramped, insular dating pool, superstar OB-GYN Addison seemed nearly alone in possessing some actual capacity for happiness. (Apart from Bailey, whose personal life is protected in some privileged extracurricular space, and the woefully abused Callie, she's the only character I'd want to meet for coffee in, you know, that world where we can meet fictional people for coffee.) Her brightness owes something, I am sure, to Walsh's own red hair and blue eyes -- she looks like she's made of candy -- but in any case it craves a clearer light than Seattle gray.
That is really the premise of "Private Practice" (premiering tonight on ABC), which sends Addison south to a new job at a Santa Monica "wellness center," a house on the beach and a cast of new colleagues who, though as screwy as the ones she's leaving, are at least new to us -- we have not had three years to watch them throw away every good thing that comes their way. The title of tonight's episode, "In Which We Meet Addison, a Nice Girl From Somewhere Else," reflects that whole clean slate thing. (On screen, it's represented by Addison's dancing naked in her new digs.) But new beginnings can be difficult; there are problems here, though they are not irremediable. By and large the show improves on its pilot, which was sneaked last season into an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" as Addison visited old friend and fertility specialist Naomi (played then by Merrin Dungey, now by Audra McDonald) in hopes of getting pregnant. It has relaxed a little into itself.
Actors can flow from role to role usually without troubling our sense of who they are, but characters are less flexible, more fragile. The audience knows them intimately; it can smell inconsistency. (And will blog about it too.) One reason why "Grey's Anatomy" itself can be so exasperating is that the doctors of Seattle Grace are continually forced into unlikely new relationships to keep things novel; the actors must spin and re-spin their characters to accommodate the latest interpersonal plot twist. It's crucial that we can see the Addison we already know in the Addison we meet anew.
"Private Practice" begins at the disadvantage of any spinoff -- that we have something possibly better to compare it with -- and with the particular disadvantage of having already enshrined its early missteps within the "Grey's" canon. Last season's stealth pilot was both half-formed and too insistent, overly thick with exposition and pheromones; it threw Addison into a precipitous clinch with Pete the alternative medicine practitioner (Tim Daly) even as Walsh's natural, comic chemistry is with Taye Diggs, as internist-author Sam.
And its representation of Southern California seemed crafted by people who had never actually been here, a tourist version of local medicine and mores. In contrast to "Grey's Anatomy," which makes exhaustion glamorous, "Private Practice" is all soft focus, almost too insistent on its prettiness.
Of course, they are different animals: Where "Grey's Anatomy" is a drama with lashings of comedy, "Private Practice" is a comedy with dramatic interludes. Indeed, it would take only the slightest bit of surgery to turn it into a workplace sitcom. You'd have to downplay the medical crises, but the characters could remain as described -- the pediatrician (Paul Adelstein) fond of kinky sex with strangers, the psychologist (Amy Brenneman) who stalks her ex-boyfriend, the surfer dude receptionist (Chris Lowell) who wants to be a midwife. And you could keep the dialogue mostly intact, as well.
As actually produced, the tonal shift is more subtle than that. But it still requires Walsh to use her voice and face and body in a different way than she did on "Grey's Anatomy," and at times it feels slightly off -- like when your girlfriend comes home drunk or your husband starts singing to you for the first time in 20 years of marriage. At first you may feel that you're looking at a stranger, but it doesn't mean you can't get used to it -- or even come to prefer the stranger.
When: 9 to 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)