One of the things that television does best — the gritty urban crime drama — gets a real workout with the premieres of mid-season replacement series The Practice, Feds, Prince Street, and the return of EZ Streets.

Add these to the already existing first-rate cop or lawyer shows on the air — NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, Murder One, and Law & Order — and how many more can you possibly cram into your television diet? Even with some of those shows going on hiatus, that’s a lotta grit to consume. Given that half of these new efforts will most likely not return, here’s a consumer guide to help you decide which are worth it.

The Practice Dylan McDermott stars as the head of a dinky Boston law firm scrambling for clients. In creator David E. Kelley’s concept, this means that morality is often scrambled too: The firm is constantly tempted to take clients whose guilt is undeniable or whose crimes are repugnant enough that a bigger firm would reject them.

Kelley is the king of this sort of moral relativism, and while I wasn’t a fan of his Picket Fences (its debating-society speeches undermined its drama), The Practice has the goods to be a don’t-miss show. Movie actor McDermott (soon to be seen in ‘Til There Was You) radiates a perfect blend of intelligence and desperation; the fact that he’s also dang cute cinches his TV-star potential. The supporting cast consists of unknown names with semi-familiar television faces. If the firm’s cases tend toward the L.A. Lawish — taking on a tobacco company even though it’s a big gamble but people are dying out there, dammit — it’s L.A. Law at an ER pace, and I mean that as a compliment.

Feds Blair Brown heads up the Manhattan branch of the U.S. Attorney’s Office (which works in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation). Her underlings’ names and faces are more familiar than The Practice‘s and include Regina Taylor (I’ll Fly Away), Adrian Pasdar (from the great, short-lived Profit), and Murder One defectors Dylan Baker and Grace Phillips.

There’s way too much time spent on these Feds’ predictable private lives, and Brown barks out lines that were trite in Perry Mason’s day (”The Constitution protects the bad guys, too!”). The hot dog zealousness of these government prosecutors may unfortunately remind you of the recent real-life charges of FBI incompetence in high-profile cases. There are characters to root for — Baker’s likable wiseacre, Phillips’ best-selling novelist-turned-prim lawyer — but Feds needs less attitude and more novel content: investigations that justify our hour’s billing time.

Prince Street It’s about undercover cops — a brash young unit overseen by a grim Joe Morton. To judge from the pilot, the series might have been called Method Acting With Guns: The cops switch identities and accents so quickly and so often, it’s like they’re playing dress-up. The series strives for dark and brooding in the manner of the 1987-90 undercover show Wiseguy, but the cast, which includes Vincent Spano and Mariska Hargitay, is too big, its demeanor too melodramatically intense to achieve the sort of intricate intimacy of the show’s subtlest writing.

EZ Streets Scared commitmentless by the impressively low ratings for EZ‘s October debut, CBS snatched this off its schedule. Now relaunched, EZ still stars thirtysomething’s Ken Olin, pumped up but glum as police detective Cameron Quinn. Quinn’s gone undercover as a corrupt cop, infiltrating a crime gang to find out who killed his recently murdered partner. The crew is led by Joe Pantoliano as Jimmy Murtha, a sadistic runt with a sentimental streak who, whenever he’s not ordering an execution or playing S&M sex games with his lawyer (Debrah Farentino, in the most fearlessly masochistic performance of the year), is trying to help an old buddy fresh out of jail.

The buddy is Danny Rooney (Murder One‘s Jason Gedrick). He took a three-year trip up the river rather than rat out Murtha, so we know that Danny is both a stand-up guy and a dope. EZ builds tension by cutting back and forth between the stories of cynical Quinn and idealistic Danny; the series doesn’t have a plot so much as a beautifully tangled web of deception, cruelty, and faded hopes.

This show has been excessively praised by critics who think hard-boiled romanticism is the height of drama, and there are times when EZ Streets seems like the world’s longest Bruce Springsteen video. But that’s okay. Creator and executive producer Paul Haggis clearly envisions EZ as an epic tale of betrayal and trust, and the show has the action and humor to modulate its pretensions. In a noisy medium, EZ also has a powerful faith in silence: There are long, wordless scenes that play out like little silent movies of revenge and suffering. I’m sorry for Haggis if EZ doesn’t turn out to be a ratings buster but glad for him that he’s created a rare example of auteurist television.
The Practice: B+
Feds: B- Prince Street: C+
EZ Streets: A-

Ez Streets
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