After a roller-coaster year characterized by a devastating time-period shift and bitter renewal negotiation, David E. Kelley's scaled-down version of "The Practice" emerges as a fascinating experiment in the origins of TV loyalty -- in this case jettisoning half the cast and hoping the writing and format will still entice viewers. Yet while James Spader at his smarmy best is a much better-than-even trade for Dylan McDermott's one-note intensity, the show's trademark twists are starting to feel more telegraphed, making the series still watchable but less compelling. "The Practice" does have some built-up equity that a new series wouldn't, and the network competition's strength is questionable in CBS' hit and (mostly) miss movie and NBC's heavily promoted new legal show "The Lyon's Den," which possesses a stronger lead-in. This much is clear: If Kelley pulls off this extreme makeover of an aging drama, it will put an interesting new spin on TV salary renegotiations in the future. Kelley hits the ground running with a trio of cases in the opener, as well as high-profile stunt casting. That includes Chris O'Donnell in a
multi-episode arc clearly inspired by the Laci Peterson case (shades of "Law & Order") and, in the second episode, Sharon Stone as a schizophrenic client who comes across like a darker version of her impish role in "The Muse." The focus thus shifts to the legal skirmishing first and foremost, a logical retrenchment from the domestic bliss/discord involving the show's central couple, Bobby and Lindsay, last season. It's on the fly and through the cases that we meet Spader as Alan Shore, a lascivious, almost amoral sort bounced from his last firm due to alleged embezzlement; and Tara (Rhona Mitra), an as-yet only vaguely defined new paralegal/assistant. The problem is that in its eighth year, "The Practice" has left few roads explored, so the revisions at least initially play more like a step back than a leap forward. From the premiere's jury nullification case (about a woman who guns down a drug dealer) to Ellenor's "Plan B" gambit hoping to exonerate O'Donnell's character, you can't help but feel like we've been here before. Spader certainly brings a new dimension to the proceedings, so serpentine in hissing out his lines that you might think he's channeling George Sanders. It's a refreshing change of pace, especially when the show's lawyers have sometimes uneasily worn their white hats as they go about the business of defending murderers and pedophiles. As for the show's solid foundation of Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim and Michael Badalucco, they take a back seat at first to Spader and the guest cast -- among them the welcome sight of 88-year-old Norman Lloyd (who somehow doesn't appear to have aged since "St. Elsewhere") as an opposing counsel. Even if this amounts to little more than a stay of execution, Kelley deserves credit for the effort, while ABC -- which essentially slashed its license fee in half -- could wind up with a relative bargain. And really, when was the last time anyone said that when the subject involved lawyers?

© By Brian Lowry, September 24, 2003 (Thank you, Anais!)