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Practice Makes Perfect

Posted on Friday January 15, 2010, 17:17 by James Dyer in Small Screen
Practice Makes Perfect

With a dearth of anything approaching actual entertainment on telly over Christmas (is it wrong to dream of bludgeoning Brucie to death?), I dusted off some old, unwatched TV from the archive and found myself drawn into a marathon session of The Practice. For those of you who didn’t lap this up in the late nineties, The Practice was the eldest child in David E Kelley’s Bostonian law tilogy – otherwise known as the show that wasn’t Ally McBeal, ran longer than Ally McBeal, was consistently better than Ally McBeal but that almost no one actually watched.

The show sprung out of a weird first-refusal deal Kelley struck up with both ABC and Fox, which saw The Practice snapped up by ABC, Ally McBeal going in to production at Fox and both hitting screens at the close of 1997. In tone the two shows were night and day. While both were set within the same universe (and city) McBeal was a fluffy, caricatured romp about legal buffoonery and the occasional dancing baby. The Practice, on the other hand, was a dark ‘n’ dirty look at the workings of a rundown legal office that specialised in representing the dregs of criminal society.

Dealing with the more realistic, morally-dubious aspects of law, The Practice was not a show to lift the spirits or soothe the soul - though the absence of Vonda Shepherd must certainly have come as a blessed relief to many. In many ways it was the anti-Law & Order. While traditional legal dramas spend their time setting up cases against violent criminals before the mailed fist of justice comes firmly down upon their evildoing skull, The Practice was all about getting them off scot free. Rapists, murderers and thieves were the bread and butter for Donnell, Young, Dole and Frutt and it’s an immense credit to Kelley’s writing that despite the ethical quicksand the constantly wallowed in, audiences rarely wavered in their steadfast support for its stalwart band of dirty tricks lawyers.

Indeed, the cast was another area that set The Practice aside, eschewing the glamour of Lucy Liu and Portia De Rossi in favour of Michael Badalucco’s schlubby charms as Jimmy ‘Big Head’ Berluti (“It’s normal size!”), Steve Harris' bald bulldog, Eugene Young, and Camryn Maheim’s superb, heavy-set, weight-conscious force of nature, Ellenor Frutt. It did drag Lara Flynn-Boyle back to the small screen half a decade after Twin Peaks fell off the map, and Kelli Williams (now to be found pointing fingers opposite Tim Roth in Lie To Me) was equally easy on the eye but you never got the impression that the ability to fit into a size zero dress was the sole reason they’d been hired!

Being good, it goes without saying that The Practice was critically lauded but roundly ignored by the box-watching masses (sigh) but it eventually found a steady following and managed a highly respectable eight-year run (McBeal, by contrast, limped off after only five). What it failed to do, though, was make a star out of show lead Dylan McDermott, a fact that I still find baffling. Blessed with the rugged charisma necessary to carry a show such as The Practice is no mean feat – especially when the characters’ appeal needs to counterbalance their often odious actions in defending the scum of the Earth. By rights McDermott should have made the leap to the A-list or at least got some juicy movie roles. Still, it’s definitely worth catching him as excellent burn-out undercover cop, Carter Shaw, in TNT’s new crime drama Dark Blue. Catch it while you can, it’s been renewed but the next season may well be its last!

But I digress. Whether it’s for the hugely enjoyable supporting cast (Linda Hunt’s judge Hiller is always a delight), the unflinching storylines or the funky theme tune, there’s much to love about The Practice, and if you haven’t yet indulged then I encourage you to seek out a box set. Perhaps more important than anything else is the fact that The Practice ultimately prompted (in fact, morphed into) spin-off series Boston Legal, which took all the anarchic comedy of McBeal, combined it with the genius character construction of Practice and resulted in the greatest legal dramedy mankind has ever seen. Without Donnell & Associates there would be no Crane, Poole and Schmidt, there would be no Alan Shore and, worst of all, we’d have been denied William Shatner’s career-defining role in a post Star Trek world. “Denny Crane!”

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Comments

1 Wemmick
Posted on Monday January 18, 2010, 12:56
I've been keeping an eye out for this ever since the Boston Legal addiction kicked in. Unfortunately, it's proving hard to track down on R2.

2 Manfrendshensindshen
Posted on Monday January 18, 2010, 16:21
Indeed, a brilliant show. I sued to watch it when it was originally aired on German TV, but finding an audience here proved to be difficult, therefore we were never granted the last couple of seasons. A DVD release in Germany is about as unlikely as a complete box set of Schwarzwaldklinik (don't ask...) for the UK, so I might have to resort to dubious means to see how it all ended.

Like James I'm also baffled the show's cast didn't embark on strong careers, especially Dylan McDermott and Kelli Williams, as they combined appealing looks with acting chops. Badalucco, Harris and Manheim were just as good, but in this cynical world it was clear that they'd remain character role material.

Now when will a new David E. Kelley show actually turn out to be good again?

3 DavidPMcGinty
Posted on Monday June 14, 2010, 15:53
This was superb, used to show the entire run daily on a loop on ITV2 about 5 years ago and I got addicted.

The William Hinks episodes were absolutely brilliant. Shame it's hard to get nowadays as it was gripping television and very cerebral; most episodes were almost entirely comprised of dialogue, which may explain the reluctance of viewers to tune in consistently.

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