Practice Makes Perfect

With its catchy plotlines and complex characters, David E. Kelley's legal drama courts success

The ray of hope here is, of course, Camryn Manheim, whose Ellenor Frutt deserves all the awards she has carted home. Manheim has become famous as That Big Woman (she dedicated her Emmy to "all the fat girls"), but what's particularly refreshing is that Kelley has the guts to make her more than occasionally unpleasant. Instead of speaking from any sanctimonious human-rights platform, Ellenor is financially and sexually aggressive, openly acquisitive, and sometimes alarmingly unethical in her pursuit of the big score. She pushes hard for the firm to add an asbestos manufacturer as a client (its numerous lawsuits will pay for her new car, she pleads) and takes a swing at the receptionist when a practical joke backfires. Fully human and often the least likable character on screen, she demands no privileges or emotional set-asides, nothing beyond respect for her accomplishments and drive. A better vision of, yes, empowerment is hard to imagine. (Sadly, the same can't yet be said for the show's online promos, which smirkingly refer to Manheim as "hefty," "chubby," an "ample actress," and a "Hollywood heavyweight"--all in a single item. One imagines an ambitious 110-pound USC-film grad with a class in HTML, tapping away jealously in the bowels of ABC's PR division.)

Ultimately, The Practice hooks you with its caseload and reels you in with its characters. Like Homicide, the show it resembles most in temperament and approach, The Practice is at its core an actors' studio. While the plots certainly keep viewers on their toes, sustained viewing teaches you to seek out the nuances: Ellenor's unceasing battle with her hunger for recognition; or bullet-headed Eugene Young (Steve Harris) attempts to overcome self-doubt as he performs an act that some part of him can't quite countenance. Pick your favorite, sample the variety on display, or savor the way that McDermott's laconic authority lets Manheim's unsteady self-assurance carry a scene. (Even guest stars get into the spirit: John Larroquette tossed himself joyfully over the top as a vain, self-satisfied gay man who'd killed his lover and seemed determined to represent himself into an institution.)

Have you been in a car crash or received an insurance settlement? Call Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott, front) and the firm Donnell, Young, Dole & Frutt
Have you been in a car crash or received an insurance settlement? Call Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott, front) and the firm Donnell, Young, Dole & Frutt

Any way you look at it, The Practice is at its peak right now. If you want the lives and loves of our favorite ethical role models served up with wit and depth, this is the firm to hire.

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