Practice Very Nearly Makes Perfect

By Tom Shales

If suddenly your TV set could receive only one broadcast network (there's a not-very-terrifying thought), ABC would be the network to be stuck with. To say it has the best slate of entertainment shows is faint praise, but it does. At least it has the smallest number of shows that just sit there and reek.

One of the best is "The Practice," the weekly drama about a scrappy law firm. This year it won the Emmy for best dramatic series. Its ratings are not great -- yet -- but back in the early '80s, another underwatched but brilliantly done drama series won Emmys and that helped it get noticed and eventually become a hit: "Hill Street Blues."

May it happen to "The Practice," too. In tomorrow night's thrill-packed "November Sweeps" episode, at 10 on Channel 7, some of the parallel plots that have been unraveling for the past few weeks are deftly sutured. But you needn't have seen any or all of the preceding episodes to enjoy this climax. There's a handy-dandy recap at the beginning ("Previously on 'The Practice' ") and enough retroactive exposition so that new viewers can follow the provocative story lines.

And you get to see such good acting -- including Dylan McDermott as Bobby Donnell, handsome head of the firm and the best-dressed lawyer in TV history (maybe in lawyer history, too); Emmy winner Camryn Manheim as Ellenor Frutt, proudly portly partner; Steve Harris, fashionably bald, as Eugene Young, a lawyer whose conscience tussles with his ambition; and Kelli Williams as Lindsay Dole, a very young lawyer who's had the best story and best scenes so far this season.

Weeks ago, Dole found herself defending Anderson Pearson, a onetime college law professor of hers -- a paragon of integrity whom she'd idolized for years -- in a bizarre murder case. It seems Pearson, touchingly and masterfully played by Edward Herrmann, had been harassed by a stalker whom he'd sent to jail, sort of like in the movie "Cape Fear."

One night the stalker showed up at Pearson's front door and handed him the family's pet cat -- which he had strangled. Pearson, armed for fear of what the stalker might do, went ballistic, literally, and shot him dead. Very dead -- he pumped five bullets into him. Surprisingly, the lawyers decided not to plead self-defense in the courtroom but to argue instead that Pearson was so unhinged and enraged he pulled the trigger involuntarily.

It was a risky defense and it didn't work, partly because the judge in the case, a surly dynamo named Zoey Hiller (played by another terrific actor, Linda Hunt), seemed prejudiced against Dole and her firm. All this and more comes to a head tomorrow night at a sentencing hearing that becomes a heart-pumping showdown. Williams is spectacular.

Before the final verdict, Dole gets so angry with the judge that she hurls a brief at her right there in court -- and promptly lands in a jail cell herself. Then Donnell comes to her defense and gets tossed into the slammer, too. It's a wild night on "The Practice" but not wholly implausible, especially since news stories about crackpot judges are legion. Sometimes those crackpots go back to being lawyers but insist on being addressed as "Judge." But that's another story.

A new plot line is also introduced. It seems a witness in a previous case didn't like it when one of the firm's lawyers called him a murderer while he was on the witness stand. So he's suing the firm for $30 million. Tony Danza plays the lawyer for the witness -- the only weak link in the show's acting lineup. If Tony Danza is a lawyer, I have Brad Pitt's pecs.

It's a small flaw, though, in a show full of solid satisfactions, as when Manheim tells Danza her firm's philosophy: "We win -- and we got no problem getting ugly." Or when Dole goes against everybody's advice in devising a new ploy for Pearson's defense: "In my mind, I have to know that I tried everything."

Lara Flynn Boyle, who plays prosecutor Helen Gamble -- usually a heartless bully -- even gets to show a more humane side in one of the subplots in cahoots with Young. But like Ally McBeal, Gamble is shockingly thin and needs to start chugging the Nutrament. Yours truly could also suggest a quick-weight-gain diet that has been proven effective over years of use.

But back to the point: Smart, suspenseful and often electrifying, "The Practice" makes nearly perfect viewing and is right up there in a league with "NYPD Blue," "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "ER." To say the least.


Transcript courtesy of The Washington Post1998 All Rights Reserved


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