Being a former lawyer, it wasn’t surprising that television producer David E. Kelley made his name creating legal dramas (with such exceptions as the medical drama Chicago Hope and the high school-themed Boston Public). The Practice turned out to be one of Kelley’s better efforts, with his now-trademark combination of realistic court proceedings and outrageous situations. But the show kept an even keel; the excesses never got in the way of a good story.
The Practice was set in the Boston, Massachusetts law firm of Robert Donnell and Associates, a struggling operation that took all types of cases–criminal and civil–that came through their doors. The firm’s leader, Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott), helped keep the firm afloat by representing the clients other lawyers would not take–drug dealers and seemingly guilty clients who needed a miracle to stay out of jail. Working under Bobby were associate attorney Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim), a “plus-sized” woman who was effective in representing clients; African-American attorney Eugene Young (Steve Harris), who had more of a moral compass in his dealings than Bobby; and associate Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams), a strong-willed attorney who eventually dated (and married) Bobby. Lisa Gay Hamilton played Rebecca Washington, a paralegal and receptionist who eventually became a licensed attorney. In the second episode, Bobby hired attorney turned loan officer Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco), a working class Italian-American who struggled with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. The attorney’s main adversary was Assistant District Attorney Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle), who seemed to take on most of the cases against Bobby’s staff (and briefly dated Bobby, to boot). In the second season, when Rebecca became an associate attorney, Bobby hired Lucy Hatcher (Marla Sokoloff), a nosy, sarcastic receptionist.
ABC premiered The Practice as a short-run series on March 4th, 1997 (temporarily replacing NYPD Blue); relatively good ratings led to a renewal. But for its second season, the series ranked in the lower half of the popularity charts due to poor time slots. In the fall of 1998, ABC moved The Practice to Sunday nights at 10:00 PM, where its ratings began to rise. By the fall of 1999, the show gained a new lead-in–the wildly popular game Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Many viewers stayed with ABC, and for the next two seasons, The Practice was a top ten series, winning accolades along the way. But when the ‘Millionaire’ fad finally fizzled in prime time, The Practice saw its audience slip away as well. By the fall of 2002, the series fell to 53rd place. In an unusual move, ABC told Kelley it would renew The Practice for an eighth season–if he would cut the show’s $6.3 million budget by half. Kelley had no choice but to prune the large ensemble cast. "It was very tough on a human level," he told “TV Guide” magazine. "I was kinda wishing that the show had been cancelled, rather than have to do that."
When faithful viewers tuned in for the fall 2003 season premiere, they saw radical changes. Bobby, fearing he was becoming more of a corporate attorney than a maverick, abruptly left the firm. Lindsay, Lucy and Rebecca also disappeared, and Helen fled the district attorney’s office; the show never explained the departure of the female characters. Only Ellenor, Eugene and Jimmy remained at the revamped firm; Lucy’s replacement was paralegal and third-year law student Tara Wilson (Rhona Mitra). Ellenor hired on an old friend, anti-trust attorney Alan Shore (James Spader), who was fired from his old law firm for embezzlement. Alan proved to be effective, generating new clients and revenue. But Eugene and Jimmy began clashing with Alan over his womanising behaviour and his unconventional antics in the courtroom.
As the series wound down its season, both Eugene and Jimmy fired Alan without consulting Ellenor. Worse, Alan was given just $15,000 for severance–even though he brought in $9 million in new revenues. (Paralegal Tara was also fired for warning Alan about the termination.) Alan fought back by filing a lawsuit, hiring the high-end legal firm Crane, Poole and Schmidt to represent him. (The attorney heading his case was senior partner Denny Crane, an eccentric, aging barrister played to the hilt by William Shatner.) The case went to a jury, which ruled that Young, Frutt & Berluti wrongly fired Shore and must pay him $2.3 million in damages. Soon after, Alan and Tara were hired by Crane, Poole & Schmidt. The trial’s aftermath caused major friction between the remaining partners of the firm, and they decided to pay Alan and dissolve the partnership. Single mom Ellenor temporarily put aside her legal career to spend time with her child (which she conceived by artificial insemination). Eugene was appointed as a superior court judge, while Jimmy started a new law firm in his working-class neighbourhood.
While The Practice officially ended its long run on May 16th, 2004, the adventures of Alan and Denny would continue that same year in a new ABC series created by Kelley called Boston Legal. (See more in Television Heaven on the history of that programme.)
The Practice gained a reputation of hiring well-known actors and actresses for guest roles, and using them to their best advantage. As a result, the show won more Emmys in the guest performance roles (both male and female) than any other series, along with the most nominations in those categories. Among the Emmy winners who appeared on The Practice: John Larroquette, Edward Herrmann, James Whitmore, Beah Richards, Michael Emerson, Charles S. Dutton, Alfre Woodard, Sharon Stone, and William Shatner. Actors and actresses who were nominated for their work but did not win an Emmy included Tony Danza, Paul Dooley, Henry Winkler, Marlee Matlin, Rene Auberjonois and Betty White (the latter two would also work on Boston Legal).
During its run, The Practice won a total of 41 Emmy awards, including Outstanding Drama Series (1998, 1999) and acting wins for co-stars Camryn Manheim and Michael Badalucco.
David E. Kelley pulled an Emmy first in 1998, when he became the first producer to win the same year for both Outstanding Drama Series (The Practice) and Outstanding Comedy Series (Ally McBeal).
The Practice had some of its characters cross over to other Kelley-produced series. In April 1998, Ally McBeal’s law firm Cage & Fish hired Bobby Donnell and his team to help defend an ax murderer. It was an unusual crossover because it involved different networks–the storyline began at 9 PM on Fox’s ‘Ally,” and viewers who wanted to learn the outcome had to switch their dials to ABC at 10 PM for The Practice. The stunt angered some Fox stations who felt the network was hurting their local news or other programmes that aired against the ABC series. Kelley later engineered another two-part crossover between The Practice and his high school-based Fox drama Boston Public. And on a 2001 episode of The Practice, Eleanor turned to Doctor Ben Gideon (Andre Braugher) of the short-lived medical drama Gideon’s Crossing when she experienced complications with her pregnancy. (In this case, the crossover involved two ABC series, even though Kelley did not produce ‘Gideon’s’.)
Published on January 21st, 2019. Written by Mike Spadoni (2009) for Television Heaven.