'Practice' makes a good puzzle Preview: NBC introduces a smart crew of likable lawyer-hating lawyers in a new hourlong drama.

March 04, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

In yesterday's Today section, the incorrect network for the television show "The Practice" was mentioned in a headline. The new legal drama appears on ABC; its local affiliate is WMAR (Channel 2).

The Sun regrets the error.

"The Practice" is an anti-lawyer courtroom drama that sides with the little guy against corporate America, but ultimately votes conservative.

Sound like a bundle of contradictions? It is, but what a pretty package to look at and what a fine piece of work by producer David E. Kelley ("Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope").

The first thing viewers will notice in tonight's pilot is how heavily Kelley borrows from "NYPD Blue" for the show's opening montage. Same kettle drums, lightning-fast cuts and big-city street scenes.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The big city, though, is Boston not New York, and Kelley is hard at work from the very first image of Boston Garden -- former home of the Boston Celtics basketball team -- firmly establishing point of view: a downtown street corner, city park, pizzeria, clotheslines hanging from the rear of tenements and a playground with kids dribbling a basketball.

We are supposed to see things from the streets up in this series -- "We, the people. " And, just in case anyone misses the point, there's a final big-city image, which comes at the end of the hour when our hero walks out of the courthouse and takes a long, hard look up through the nightlights at a tall, sleek tower of reflecting glass and shining steel.

This is where the blue-stocking, corporate lawyers work -- where the enemy lives. And it is no mistake in this '90s populist drama that the office tower so resembles the ones that housed Ewing Oil or McKenzie, Brackman and Chaney in the '80s dramas of "Dallas" and "L.A. Law." (A footnote: Kelley served as executive producer of "L.A. Law" in the show's fourth and fifth seasons after creator Steven Bochco left.)

The hero of "The Practice," Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott), seems like a '90s kind of guy. Looking like a cross between one of the Baldwin boys and George Stephanopoulos, he's smart and tough, but vulnerable, too. He can go toe-to-toe with the toughest prosecutors and big-ticket lawyers in town, but he admits to a female associate that he's frightened during a dark night of the soul before a big trial. In the fourth episode, which was sent to critics along with the pilot, he cries.

Donnell has a small practice in a rundown, downtown building. The firm is short on office furniture and cash, but deep in talent and passion. From the street-smart former investigator-turned-attorney to the recent Harvard grad with lots to learn, the team Kelley has created borrows from such socially conscious legal dramas of the early 1970s as "Storefront Lawyers" and "The Young Lawyers." (Another footnote: The latter was also set in Boston.)

The main story tonight has Donnell defending a 17-year-old girl (Tammy Townsend) charged as a drug dealer after police catch her trying to hide her older brother's drugs in a pillowcase. She refuses a deal that would result in her serving only four months, because she believes it would be a lie to plead guilty. If convicted, she faces a mandatory sentence of 15 years. Linda Hunt as the judge in this case is better than any guest actress you saw in any other weekly drama this year.

But the case that is far more representative of where the series is headed finds Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams), the young Harvard Law grad, suing a tobacco company on behalf of a client whose wife died of lung cancer. Edward Herrmann plays the morally bankrupt attorney for the tobacco company, who just happens to be one of Dole's former professors. It's an advantage he aims to exploit.

"Bobby Donnell is a good practitioner, but that's all he is -- a practitioner," the attorney tells Dole. "You studied to be a lawyer. I should hate to see you waste your gift."

The case is not resolved until the fourth week, but I won't be giving anything away by saying that Dole does not waste her gift.

Visually, "The Practice" is a carefully sculpted study in contrasts. The gray and grit of the streets vs. the Roman arches, cathedral ceilings and soft shafts of sunlight falling through courthouse windows: The real world of life as it's actually lived vs. the aspirations and ideals imagined in the law.

But thinking too much about the ideology of "The Practice" will only make you crazy. Kelley is clever enough to cut it both ways. While the series seems to be hard-core Hollywood liberal on the surface with its ethnic and gender mix and contempt for big business, scratch a little deeper and you can find some downright contradictory messages.

For example, Eugene Young (Steve Harris), the investigator-turned-attorney, might seem like a defender of the underdog, but most of his best lines come when he's mocking the very criminals he's supposed to defend. And, by the fourth week, you will wonder whether Donnell is being celebrated for his passion for the law or his struggle to be a successful entrepreneur -- one of those beleaguered small businessmen Rush Limbaugh champions on his radio show.

The ultimate in trying to have it both ways, though, is seen in the advertising campaign ABC has selected for the series. A picture of Donnell and the lawyers in his firm is headlined: "They hate lawyers, too."

But they are lawyers themselves, aren't they? Yes, they are, and I suspect a lot of viewers are going to like them.

Like I said, thinking too much about the ideology of "The Practice" will only make you crazy.

"The Practice" premieres at 10 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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