Friday, September 21, 2012

Back Before It Was Good - The Practice - Volume 1

The Good: Some decent acting, Interesting story lines, Seeds of interesting character
The Bad: Only 13 episodes, Lame DVD extra, Rocky start
The Basics: Despite what The Practice became, it had a rockier start than I remembered and the DVD offers little for fans to entice them into this set.

When I recently wrote an article on the Top 10 Television Shows I No Longer Miss, I discovered that for all of the years of watching The Practice, I didn't feel any emptiness with its absence. For sure, it segued nicely into Boston Legal's first season (reviewed here!), but after years of watching it and enjoying several of the characters, I found there was nothing missing in my life with The Practice gone. Feeling I ought to have some sense of something missing, given that I devoted eight years (okay, seven and a quarter) to watching the show, I decided it was time to pick up The Practice - Volume 1 on DVD. This is "Volume One" because it includes all six episodes of the first season and seven from the second season. Why only seven? I have no idea. Apparently, the cost would have been too great to include both seasons one and two (other shows have done it!) and not cost enough to only sell the first season. Go figure.

Having rewatched the first thirteen episodes of the series again, it's a surprise the show lasted as long as it did. That's not to say it isn't good, but it isn't great. The seeds of what it became are there, but the actual greatness . . . it wasn't there from the beginning. Following a quasi-serialized storyline through its first season, The Practice builds into something worth watching, but this first volume truly is the toss of a coin for whether or not to pick it up.

Donnell and Associates is a Boston law firm headed by Bobby Donnell, a lawyer whose idealism has faded to accommodate the day to day struggle to pay the bills. As a result, he often finds himself representing drug dealers, people who expose themselves in public, and robbers. With his associates, he tries to build a respectable firm and in the process gains some notoriety in the law community for winning unwinnable cases.

In this first volume, serialized elements include cases involving Lindsay Dole prosecuting a wrongful death case against Big Tobacco, Bobby representing a doctor with anger management issues, "Free Willy," as well as an arc involving Bobby securing a loan from a friend to keep the business afloat. There are also episodic cases woven in, which involve such things as Eugene defending an armed robber, a 19 year-old accused of statutory rape, and Lindsay representing an alleged bomber.

What makes this volume such a crapshoot is that the cases are often much more interesting than the characters. The show begins its tenure as very plot-driven and it takes some time for it to evolve into something that is heavy on the character. The seeds of the characters that they come to be are definitely there and it's worthwhile to see who the principles of Donnell and Associates are. The primary characters in the first volume include:

Bobby Donnell - Founder of the firm, he's idealistic, but his idealism is fading in the face of the bills and making day-to-day ends meet. He emotionally invests himself in his cases and often believes that his clients are either not guilty or that there were procedural errors used to arrest or prosecute them. He works to hold the firm together and keep everyone focused on their cases, though he finds himself in over his head defending a doctor with rage issues,

Jimmy Berluti - An old friend of Bobby's, he is brought to the firm after falsifying loan documents to help Bobby get a loan. He is shy, awkward and does not have the killer instinct to practice law, despite being a lawyer,

Ellenor Frutt - An associate who is a cut-to-the-chase type person. She gives great arguments in court and in the office, but finds herself with little social life and difficulty making new friends because of her size,

Lindsay Dole - An efficient, highly ethical lawyer, she wants parity with Bobby, especially when she begins to take on big clients for the firm. She has a former professor who she finds herself up against in court, which makes it difficult at times for her to do her best work,

Rebecca Washington - The firm's receptionist, she acts as a paralegal for the others at Donnell and Associates,

Helen Gamble - An Assistant District Attorney and adversary to those at Donnell and Associates, she enters in the second season to take on the firm, though she works hard to keep her side of the law ethical,

and Eugene Young - A former private investigator, he is motivated by a strong desire to win. An old friend of Bobby's, he helped start the firm and he's not wild about Jimmy coming to work with the rest of the group. Eugene is a parent, though he almost never sees his son as his wife has custody of him. Eugene throws himself into his work, angrily combating prosecutorial or police misconduct against his clients.

With Volume One, the characters are getting their feet wet and despite the fact that many of the characters have known one another for years, there are still a number of scenes that feel like beginnings. The viewer has to train themselves to accept these conceits and, honestly, it's a little hard to swallow.

Similarly, some of the actors do not seem comfortable with their roles or the jargon associated with it. Kelli Williams seems to take a few episodes to get into the swing of things, as does Lisa Gay Hamilton. Michael Badaluco seems to have a much more firm grasp on his character and role once he joins the cast after his first few appearances.

Conversely, Steve Harris comes in the first episode and seems to have a firm grasp on who his character is. Harris plays Eugene and from his opening lines, he is in control and confident within the persona of the lawyer who will fight without mercy for his clients. Harris is given little opportunity to show he's enjoying himself - Eugene is quite straightlaced - though he does manage to take advantage of the few opportunities that come his way, like infusing the hints of a smile when Eugene starts betting against the ADA on a case they are trying.

The show is held together by Dylan McDermott, who stars as Bobby Donnell. This is, arguably, the role that made McDermott a household name and he holds up his end well, though the early episodes are difficult to determine where his acting is shaky and where his character is unsure. Sometimes, McDermott's cadence is off. But for the most part, he is able to assume the mantel of leadership - even if it is only of a law firm - and he plays the part well.

The only DVD extra is a featurette about the origins of the show. That's a huge disappointment for fans of the series as it is not nearly as insightful as commentary or . . . well, more featurettes would be.

The nice thing about The Practice is that while certain character elements are serialized, most of the cases (and episodes) are episodic in nature, allowing one to jump in later. Ultimately, my recommendation for this boxed set came down to a coin toss. It's pretty average television on a below average DVD presentation. But for those looking for the origins of the great show to come, this is where to start.

For other works with Camryn Manheim, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The L Word - Season 2
Dark Water


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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