Review for The Practice: Season 1 & 2 Box Set (8 Discs)
You wait for one US legal drama to show up, and then two come along at once. I've got a cliché and I'm not afraid to use it. In this instance, the UK debut of LA Law from Revelation Films has been swiftly followed up by a Season 1 and 2 Boxset of The Practice from Mediumrare Entertainment. The two shows may be spaced more than a decade apart, but they do have one David E. Kelley in common. Kelley served as script editor and writer on LA Law, and he would later produce The Practice (as well as Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, and other US legal dramas). In the extra features in this collection, Kelley is interviewed, and he states that he wanted The Practice to present the reality of the legal profession, as removed from the soap opera glitz and glamour, the toned bodies and epic suntans of LA Law. Sure enough, The Practice is about the smaller, more real aspects of public defence work, the unsung cases, the domestic disputes and acts of petty crime that the overworked legal profession has to deal with on a conveyer belt like basis. It's unglamorous, it's not pretty, and the rewards are moral rather than financial. It's a different type of legal drama, which in no way goes to explaining why it crossed over in its second season with Ally McBeal, a show with a computer generated dancing baby, and the hallucinating title character.
I won't be able to find out the answer to that particular question, as while Mediumrare Entertainment are offering value for money by bundling the truncated first season with the second, I only received the first season for review, six episodes across two discs, so my opinion will be based on those episodes alone.
Bobby Donnell runs a struggling law firm in Boston, eschewing the big bucks and corporate cases to instead represent the everyday man struggling for justice. Of course that means being assigned as public defenders for the more questionable strata of society, where backroom plea bargains tend to supersede the system of trial by jury. But within this moral and ethical minefield are also the genuine innocents, the downtrodden that need representation that they can ill afford, against opponents and odds that are stacked against them. Helping Bobby fight the good fight, are associates Eugene Young, Ellenor Frutt, Lindsay Dole, and they are soon joined by Jimmy Berluti.
Season 1 consists of 6 episodes, while season 2 has 28 episodes.
The Practice comes from the late nineties, at that point when US TV was transitioning away from the soft, videotape NTSC quality broadcasts, and were beginning to release shows with higher definition images. The Practice comes from 1998, and its 4:3 regular transfer has a very appealing clarity and sharpness to it, although that also brings out the grimness and grittiness in the low rent Boston locations and sets. The audio comes in DD 2.0 English stereo form, and is free from distortion or dropout, mirroring the original broadcasts. Unfortunately this release lacks subtitles, which for this show, with its fast paced and dense dialogue, would have been of greater use. Incidentally, I find the theme music to The Practice, with its barely constrained cacophony designed to accentuate the shorter credit sequences of the late nineties, one of the worst things in creation. Fortunately it's the only bad thing about the show, and doubly fortunate that it is wholly skippable.
The two discs of the first season that I received boast animated menus with a legal brief theme to them, presented in an anamorphic ratio, as opposed to the show's 4:3 presentation.
The only extras are on disc 2 of season 1, and boil down to a 40-second slideshow gallery of photographs, and a 17-minute Setting Up The Practice featurette. In it the cast and crew speak about the show and their characters. It's interesting to see that while the show was initially imagined as presenting the nitty-gritty and procedural realism of the actual practice of law, that focus became lost with the advent of season 2 and the need to chase ratings, and the small band of everyday lawyers began taking on larger and larger cases.
I can't help but compare The Practice to LA Law, not only because I'm watching the two first season collections barely a month apart, but creator David E. Kelley draws the comparison in the featurette on disc 2. I've always been a sucker for the bright glamorous, and fantastic, one reason why most of my soap opera watching was done during the eighties, when women wore shoulder-pads and men sold oil in US soaps, as opposed to the grit and grime of British soap. By the same token, I by far prefer the smoothness and glitz of LA Law to the somewhat grubby realism of The Practice. But unlike my reference to soap operas, it's a relative comparison, as The Practice is still top-notch, gripping drama, with appealing characters, sharp writing, and a perfectly judged balance of drama and comedy. It also takes no time at all to settle in, is firing on all cylinders from the first frame of episode 1, and the cast is an established ensemble almost as quickly. If only all US drama could be so accomplished and well crafted.
There is a comfortable familiarity if you come to this show following LA Law. After all, it follows the fortunes of a firm of lawyers, and the cases that they handle vary from the comical to the dramatic. But this is a low rent LA Law, with added grunge. Bobby Donnell's firm is one that is teetering on the edge of insolvency as the series begins, with a focus more on public service than the profit margin. They help the little people, those who need legal assistance but can ill afford it, and to keep the cash flow going, they take on those cases assigned by the public defender's office for set fees, which means that they usually defend the lowest in society, the repeat offenders and hardened criminals. They face the ethical quandary of defending the 'guilty' more often as a result, which explains their more harried demeanours, and stressed workdays. Glamorous this most certainly is not.
Dylan McDermott as Bobby Donnell is the heart of the show, and is certainly an example of inspired casting. Bobby Donnell is the epitome of the tormented lawyer, always torn between ethics and a desire to win, and with a demeanour that equally demands sympathy from a jury, as well as capable of impassioned rhetoric. McDermott's screen presence in The Practice can be mesmerising, and he alone would be worth the purchase price. It's just that the ensemble is so strong that you can't discount Steve Harris as the bearlike Eugene Young, an intimidating figure in the courtroom, but one with a whimsical sense of humour. Camryn Manheim as Ellenor Frutt has less chance to shine in the first series, but already she stands as an abrasive conscience to Bobby, unafraid to stand up to him and point out his deficiencies on occasion. Kelli Williams as Lindsay Dole is the genius lawyer, the Yale graduate, but one who lacks real experience. Michael Badalucco as Jimmy Berluti is the everyman character, a little bit comic relief, but also our perspective into the world of the lawyer, the lawyer who's never won a case. He's also the anti-Bobby, in that while just as impassioned, he doesn't have the talent with oratory, the confidence or the presentation skills. Sarah Gay Hamilton as Rebecca Washington is also the conscience of the firm, but a gentler one than Ellenor. In season 1 she's the firm's legal secretary, but in subsequent seasons she becomes a full-fledged lawyer.
It is a serial drama, so while there are those cases that take up just an episode of time, or even less, there are also those cases that have arcs across the episodes. In this first season, the two major cases include Lindsay's first jury trial when she sues a tobacco company for compensation, on behalf of a widower grieving his wife's loss to lung cancer. There is also the Doctor Braun murder trial, which kicks off when Gerald Braun takes the law into his own hands, following the acquittal of the man who murdered his daughter following a temporary insanity plea. In between, we get serious cases such as a girl accused of drug possession, a divorce case that goes tragically wrong, a boy who gets a 13-year-old girl pregnant, and less serious cases like the serial flasher 'Free Willy'.
If there is one thing that makes it harder for me to warm to The Practice, it's that it's very densely written, with a lot of focus on the procedure and the cases. Every few minutes there is a dramatic punch or a hit of information, you have to stay glued to the screen for its entire runtime. This isn't a bad thing. It's just that with all the procedure, the character development takes something of a back seat, especially in the first season that I reviewed. Ironically, it's the least legally active of the lawyers in these six episodes, Ellenor Frutt, who gets the most character development, with her blind date with a podiatrist. But these six episodes make it wholly clear, that if you're going to get into The Practice, you'll have to dive in, it's no use just dipping a toe in on occasion. With both LA Law and The Practice, we have two quality legal shows in quick succession that are really spoiling us.