In 1997, producer and writer David E. Kelley delivered two new TV shows. Fox aired Ally McBeal and ABC got The Practice. The former was the bigger hit, but the latter showed a side of Kelley that was somewhat surprising. Audiences were familiar with the goofy antics of his previous shows, but they were perhaps not prepared for the sobriety of The Practice. With the other shows, Kelley wanted to make us laugh. With this one, he wanted us to get angry, perhaps even cry, but above all, care.
The criminal cases made them notorious
Not that there wasn’t plenty of craziness on The Practice too. Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) was the young, idealistic attorney who together with a partner, Eugene Young (Steve Harris), had started his own law firm in Boston. The office was small and located in a rather shabby building. The duo’s associate attorneys were Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim), Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) and Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco); receptionist Rebecca Washington (Lisa Gay Hamilton) eventually got a law degree as well. The firm took both civil and criminal cases, but the latter is what made them notorious. They quickly gained a reputation for being dishonest (which wasn’t quite true), but effective. The lawyers were indeed idealists, fighting for anyone they thought was innocent, but they also needed to keep the firm afloat financially and wouldn’t say no to the scumbags.
They also couldn’t resist developing the infamous “Plan B” strategy, where they would point a finger at someone close to their client and make the jury think it was at least possible that that person could have committed the crime. Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle) was conflicted. She was an assistant district attorney who often clashed with this firm, but she also once had a relationship with Bobby and liked him and his associates a lot. Her character was much like the audience; you certainly sympathized with these people, but knew their methods were, to put it mildly, in the gray zone between legal and illegal.
Wringing every emotion out of the cases
Spectacular things happened over the years – I can’t resist touching on a few spoilers. There was a case where a man one day showed up at the office with a severed head in his bag. Jimmy had an affair with a judge who turned out to be not quite right in the head. Lindsay was knifed by an unknown person dressed as a nun, and subsequently stalked by a cannibalistic killer, which ended with a shooting and a murder trial. As if that wasn’t enough, a bomb destroyed the office in the fourth season, almost killing a major character.
Sounds like typical soap opera stuff, but it was absolutely riveting; the writers kept it real enough for us to believe. Along with the superb cast, Kelley’s team were always good at wringing every emotion out of the cases and the events in the main characters’ lives. They made damned sure we cared, with the true highlight being the fifth season that ended with the inevitable yet shocking mob hit on a minor but compelling character (the actor gave a wonderful performance).
The Practice came close to being canceled after seven seasons, but there was an eighth, and it came with many changes. Several cast members departed and were primarily replaced by Alan Shore (James Spader), an ethically challenged but charming new associate. His arrival triggered the end of the firm, with everyone finding new careers and lives in other places.
The final sequence ended on a surprisingly depressing note, with Bobby returning to the old office, sitting in a chair, quietly sobbing. He was the only one unable to let go and move on. Appropriate closure to a dark yet warmly satisfying TV series.
The Practice 1997-2004:U.S. Made for TV. 168 episodes. Color. Created by David E. Kelley. Theme: Jon Hassell. Cast: Dylan McDermott (Bobby Donnell, 97-03), James Spader (Alan Shore, 03-04), Steve Harris (Eugene Young), Camryn Manheim, Lara Flynn Boyle (97-03), Kelli Williams (97-03), Michael Badalucco, Lisa Gay Hamilton (97-03), Marla Sokoloff (98-03), Jessica Capshaw (02-04), Rhona Mitra (03-04).
Trivia: Followed by a spin-off series, Boston Legal (2004-2008).
Emmys: Outstanding Drama Series 97-98, 98-99; Actor (Spader) 03-04; Supporting Actor (Badalucco) 98-99; Supporting Actress (Manheim) 97-98, (Holland Taylor) 98-99; Guest Actor (John Larroquette) 97-98, (Edward Herrmann) 98-99, (James Whitmore) 99-00, (Michael Emerson) 00-01, (Charles S. Dutton) 01-02, (William Shatner) 03-04; Guest Actress (Beah Richards) 99-00, (Alfre Woodard) 02-03, (Sharon Stone) 03-04. Golden Globes: Best Drama Series 99; Actor (McDermott) 99; Supporting Actress (Manheim) 99.
Last word: “There was no question it was hard work. [‘The Practice’ and ‘Ally McBeal’] were so disparate, that when I would be writing on one, it was a total escape from the other. One show would give me the distance from the other. I would immerse myself in ‘Ally’ and for four days ‘The Practice’ did not exist. Finish with that script, return to ‘The Practice’ and for the next four days or so, ‘Ally McBeal’ was not on my radar. The two shows sort of turned out to be a very compatible back-and-forth for me.” (Kelley, Vulture)