|The Practice: Volume One (1997)
Starring: Dylan McDermott, Michael Badalucco, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim, Kelli Williams, Lara Flynn Boyle
Given the number of legal series that have been on the air over the years, it takes more and more work to create something that stands out as a unique entity. Fortunately, when it comes to the unique, David E. Kelley is a master in the field.
When Kelley pitched “The Practice” to ABC, he already had considerable experience in the legal genre; he wrote the script for the Judd Nelson film, “From the Hip,” and was a major contributor to “L.A. Law” for the series’ first five seasons. (If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Kelley wrote two-thirds of the show’s episodes during that time frame.) On top of those impressive credits, Kelley also has his very own law degree from Boston University. That, and the fact that he was raised in Boston, probably explains why “The Practice” was set in that city. For the show, Kelley went to the opposite end of the spectrum from the last legal drama he’d worked on, opting to explore life in a law firm where cases don’t grow on trees, paychecks aren’t always on time, and the landlord is regularly calling…and it’s usually either to ask for the rent or to threaten eviction. The occasionally dark feel of the series is echoed by its look, which more often than not makes you feel like you’re looking into the shadows.
The firm, Donnell and Associates, is led by Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott), who’s been keeping things afloat for more than a decade. Unfortunately, in the process, he’s made as many enemies as friends in the legal community. He’s got three associate attorneys on staff – Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim), Eugene Young (Steve Harris) and Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) – as well as his longtime receptionist and friend, Rebecca Washington (Lisa Gay Hamilton). It’s clear that they all have a certain amount of dedication to Bobby, even though they’re all also ready to yell at him for his occasionally questionable decisions.
“The Practice,” like most of Kelley’s series, is based as much on character development as legal drama. Bobby’s a complicated guy, one who thinks he knows what he wants but just as often he finds out that he’s completely wrong. Ellenor starts off seeming like just another stereotypical ballbuster of a woman, but as the series progresses, Kelley explores her personal life and lack of dating success, bringing it to the forefront when she’s sued for fraud over a personal ad. Lindsay looks like the young doe-eyed attorney, but she turns out to know more about law than just about anyone in the firm. Her biggest challenge comes when she’s pitted in court against her favorite law professor, Eugene. He helped found the firm with Bobby, and he’s definitely not afraid to throw his weight around inside and out of the courtroom. He’s intimidating when he needs to be, only occasionally showing his softer side.
The sweetest and most interesting character on “The Practice,” however, is Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco), who’s first introduced as a friend of Bobby’s who works at the bank where the firm has taken out a loan. After making the well-intentioned (if ultimately poor) decision to provide a further loan, things go awry when the firm cannot readily pay it back, and Jimmy finds himself on the street. Bobby hires him, as much out of guilt as friendship, but Jimmy’s history as an attorney is, to put it mildly, pretty poor in the courtroom (he’s never won a case), and watching his character battle his way to his first victory is worth cheering for. He’s a naïve, loveable lug, and Badalucco’s performance is probably the best in the series.
There are many well-selected guest roles within these 13 episodes. Weirdly, they’ve opted to include the six-episode first season, but then added a mere seven episodes from the second season. Guests include Ed Asner, Philip Baker Hall and Linda Hunt as gruff but sensible judges; Ayre Gross as a rabbi who makes an emotional declaration to a congregation member who comes back to haunt him; and John C. McGinley and Donal Logue as attorneys. There’s also a nice, sleazy turn from Taylor Negron – who may be incapable of playing anything other than sleazy roles – as a blackmailing bystander. But the most mind-blowing role might come from John Laroquette, who plays a gay man accused of murder and then carries out one of the most carefully orchestrated plans you’ve ever seen. You may notice that we haven’t yet mentioned Lara Flynn Boyle’s role as Bobby’s regular legal nemesis, Helen Gamble, but we figured we’d do it here because, despite being cited in the show’s opening credits, she really feels more like a guest star. Plus, we don’t really get much time with her character, since she doesn’t even pop up until the seventh episode.
Though you’ll no doubt be as confused as we are about the decision to do a “Volume 1” rather than release a single “Season 1 & 2” set, “The Practice” is still a show with enough solid performances and dialogue to make it worth picking up.
Special Features: It’s another one of those situations where you’re happy the producers took the time to add at least one special feature, but you still walk out of the proceedings wishing they’d done just a bit more. The lone featurette – “Setting Up ‘The Practice’” – is 18 minutes long, and it does provide a nice look at the origins of the series. It’s hard to tell what interviews are new and what aren’t, but based on the sets, it would seem that most are archival. (The possible exceptions are those with producers David E. Kelley and Robert Breech.) It’s nice to hear the thoughts and opinions of the actors themselves about the show and their characters – there are clips of conversations with every member of the main cast – but it would’ve been nice if it we’d gotten a commentary or two.