Screen: Wednesday, June 12, 2003
Firm Return

Even though The Practice is losing its stars, its rank and file is more than enough to carry the day.


It’s sobering to realize that in a sluggish economy, even big tv stars can be downsized out of jobs. So when David E. Kelley, producer of ABC’s award-winning courtroom drama The Practice, announced last month that the show would return for an eighth season this fall — in spite of a season-finale episode, entitled “Goodbye,” that seemed to foreshadow the series’ demise — there was a kicker.

The finale hinged on the departure of main character Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) from the Boston law firm he founded. In real-life newsprint, Kelley revealed that McDermott, who earned $300,000 an episode and was due for a raise, would be exiting the series, as would five other regular characters — basically all the, uh, good-looking people.

The reason for the cast changes: a need to trim the show’s reported $6.5 million per-show budget. Last fall, ABC moved the series from its longtime 9 p.m. (CST) Sunday time slot to Monday nights in hopes that the show’s luster would rub off on rookie cop series Dragnet. But The Practice’s ratings plummeted, prompting network threats to slash its licensing fee by nearly half. Now the series has returned to Sunday nights — a Pyrrhic victory for Kelley in his months-long pissing contest with the network that included casting a couple of rival broadcasters’ CEOs as themselves in an episode. ABC retaliated by airing the show against a much-hyped college basketball game.

In light of those circumstances, Kelley’s promises to have the erstwhile regulars return on a guest-star basis rang a little hollow — sounding like either a sop to loyal fans or a boss’ assurance to a downsized employee that “We’ll call you when things get better.” But you never know.

While it might seem the changes would eviscerate The Practice, some of its principals were long past their sell-by dates. McDermott’s scenery-chewing intensity had become tiresome to watch. His Donnell epitomized the type of guy certain women want because he’s “goal-oriented,” until they realize they can’t remold him into something more family-friendly — that he’ll always be the kind of Type A workaholic that burns out in his 40s. Which is pretty much what happened: Having built his shoebox practice into a prestigious, high-buck firm, Donnell turned his back and walked away to start over in another storefront, so he could relive all the joys and sorrows. (Some people never learn.)

Similarly, his wife and law partner Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) was a disaster magnet who survived a stabbing, her husband’s midlife-crisis affair, the courtroom-floor birth of their son, and her own murder trial. A real-life attorney who’d endured that many trials ’n’ tribs in seven years would probably have headed for Florida to sell surfboards for a living, but Dole was last seen considering an offer to return to the firm. Go fig.

Most lamented by the Weekly’s cable-challenged arts and entertainment staff is the departure of Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle), surely tv’s greatest exemplar of courtroom fire and ice since Hill Street Blues’ Joyce Davenport. Gamble had previously been involved with Donnell and had roomed with Dole, and she had to work alongside nincompoop fellow prosecutors, most notably Jason Kravits’ Napoleonic character and Bill Smitrovich’s tactless, sexually repressed post-burnout case. The best thing about Gamble was that she never let her relationships interfere with her smoldering desire to see wrongdoers punished.

Luckily for longtime fans, the characters that remain are also the ones that have given the show much of its humanity and look more like real lawyers. (Spend some time hanging around the Justice Center downtown and you’ll see what I mean.) Take Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco): a dumpy nice guy whose middle name could be humiliation. He’s a loser, yet somehow he manages to be more sympathetic than his more steely-eyed colleagues. Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim), who has never been hindered by her size, has often served as the firm’s compassionate conscience.

In the waning days of the ’90s, Kelley succeeded in making a national obsession out of Ally McBeal — a show that endlessly milked office sexual politics and women’s biological imperatives (admit it; you do remember the dancing baby) — before Sex and the City became an even bigger hit by doing much the same shtick on cable, where there were fewer constraints to deal with. If Kelley could make The Practice a hit again without any beautiful people in the cast — now, that would be something.

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