Practice Makes Perfect

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

Someday when our universe sputters to an end, a black-and-white Paul Drake will doubtless be somewhere following up a seemingly insignificant clue for Perry Mason. For a while in the early '90s, you could catch Mason saving the innocent three times a day if you timed your cable viewing right. (There's an entertaining essay on this particular freeze-dried enlightenment in Dave Hickey's essay collection Air Guitar.) If not Mason, the home-litigation fan has enjoyed standing in plenty of other venues. From liberal social uplift like The Defenders through L.A. Law's yuppies on parade, the legal profession has nestled perfectly into the small screen's contours.

The causes of that long-term dalliance aren't exactly a case for Sherlock Holmes, or even Columbo. Writers love courtroom confrontations because they deal out thrills both visceral and intellectual--call it wrestling for the smart set--and readily serve as platforms for politics of any stripe. When one of our periodic "trials of the century" (a term applied to Leopold and Loeb, the Scopes trial, and O.J., among others) hitches a ride on the zeitgeist, there's enough subtext left behind for 10 good novels. Indeed, Charles Dickens, whose serialized fiction isn't far from a good TV drama, penned his most epic tale, Bleak House, about a lawsuit so prolonged that generations of participants died before seeing it decided.

Of course, actors love courtroom scenes, too. With veins pulsing and voices rising, they erupt to their feet and speak truth to power: It's overacting, deepened by the gravity of doing justice. For those hardy few who stuck around, the operatic resolution of Murder One's season-long Chandleresque entanglements lifted an almost palpable weight from the viewer's chest--a reaction precious little art of any kind arouses these days.

And now the torch has been passed to ABC's The Practice (Channel 5, Sundays, 9 p.m.). Endorsed by everyone from Viewers for Quality Television to the Emmys, the show may seem the kind of overrated monstrosity that wilts under its own self-satisfaction. But with creator David E. Kelley's hallmark quirkiness kept mostly in check (though there are occasional loopy crossovers with his femmier sister project, Ally McBeal), The Practice often scales the highest peaks pop narrative can grasp. The program places three-dimensional characters in elaborate predicaments, and ultimately offers a very '90s vision of lawyers as exemplary ethical warriors.

Where L.A. Law's Arnie Becker was the very model of the modern consumer, an untrammeled id we at once resented and envied, The Practice's head honcho Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) is all superego, working hard and boasting little, waiting for that one big account that will make his firm's reputation and let him sleep at night. Should his firm throw suspicion on the innocent brother of a murdered girl merely to get a client off? Should one of the associates defend her old law professor for murder, even if his temporary insanity plea seems no more than a trick? And what about that nice doctor who woke up to find a severed head in his medical bag?

Granted, Bobby and company are a self-important fantasy; none of my lawyer friends does anything that could be easily summarized in an hour, much less dramatized as an interesting ethical predicament. And who does? Still, his motivation is less will-to-power than do-the-right-thing, and his work as a defense attorney does make the world at least infinitesimally better--though in the pursuit of victory (and ratings) he goes to the mat with his conscience at least once a week, very often to the detriment of himself or his firm.

As fantasies go, Bobby Donnell represents a particularly American vision of honesty. Reassuringly clear-eyed, attractive even at his worst, Donnell nevertheless has dark nights of the soul--which never seem to last more than a few hours. McDermott, somehow both saturnine and nondescript, fills out Kelley's Everyman pretensions in the same way Harry Hamlin's plastic good looks did on L.A. Law: Anyone, we're meant to think, harbors this potential. But Kelley might push his audience harder. Even when teetering on the edge of the unethical, as when he almost lets his friend's wife get away with murdering her illegitimate newborn granddaughter, Bobby makes it fairly apparent that he'll eventually get his head turned the right way.

The Practice's scruffy Boston firm of Donnell, Young, Dole & Frutt is casually multicultural, with two African-American members (one a partner), two female partners, and a white ethnic to round out the cast. We're not asked to congratulate the show (or ourselves) for this mixture; it's merely the way things are in an increasingly open-ended TV dramatic universe that takes casual fusion for granted. (Sitcoms are another planet altogether, about which more in a few weeks.)

Among a strong cast, the weakest and least individuated characters are Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) and assistant DA Helen Gamble (an alarmingly skeletal Lara Flynn Boyle, who at one point runs into the famously emaciated Ally McBeal and advises, "You could eat a cookie"). Neither character registers much beyond a certain brisk competence, which is apparently an occupational hazard on these sorts of shows. (Another like hazard: Both are ambiguously attached to Bobby's bed, as well.) One imagines Williams and Boyle joining a firm of TV's distaff castaways: Anonymous, Ditz & Miniskirt. Jill Eikenberry and Susan Dey doing contracts and litigation; Mary McCormack from Murder One covering defense; Courtney Thorne-Smith handling employment law.

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.)

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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