By Ken Tucker
Updated February 11, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

When did The Practice turn into such a screechy, contrived shouting match of a show? This thought first occurred to me during the opening of the Jan. 9 episode, when Lindsay (Kelli Williams) said she wanted to sue a cigar manufacturer for ruining the marriage of a woman and her obsessively stogie-sucking hubby. Lindsay’s announcement to her coworkers — her fiance Bobby (Dylan McDermott), Eugene (Steve Harris), Jimmy (Michael Badalucco), Ellenor (Camryn Manheim), and Rebecca (Lisa Gay Hamilton) — set off an immediate, lung-exploding row, with everyone shouting about the degree to which the case was a time-wasting, no-win loser. Their reaction was so overblown, it ruined the believability of the story and made me realize that exaggeration is a quality this once impeccable drama is now settling for with distressing regularity.

As if to prove my point, right after the commercial break for that same episode, Ellenor and Rebecca started yelling at each other over the idea that Rebecca’s judgment was clouded in another case, one in which she was defending her childhood friend against murder charges. Add to this an absurd subplot that had Lindsay declaring to Bobby, ”I need more sex,” Bobby yelping in response, ”You’re crazy!” and I fully expected The Practice to metamorphose into some cross between The Honeymooners (”To the moon, Lindsay!”) and writer-creator David E. Kelley’s other, more intentionally absurdist show, Ally McBeal.

Over on Ally, they are having the kind of season in which a guest turn by Wile E. Coyote wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest. The characters there are cartoons of inconsistency. Elaine (Jane Krakowski), who’s always prided herself on being a promiscuous person, now sobs when she’s said to be ”easy”? Billy (Gil Bellows) dyes his hair peroxide blond to prove he’s a macho guy? And when, on Jan. 17, Ally daydreamed she was pushed down an elevator shaft, it was less what Kelley obviously intended — a witty self-reference to his L.A. Law episode in which lawyer Rosalind Shays dropped down a shaft — than a moment of coy pandering.

Similarly, The Practice has cranked up its volume, become grotesquely over the top, and is repeating itself. Did you believe it for a second when, early this season, Bobby insisted that Lindsay wear his mother’s wedding dress? There’s no way these two intelligent characters, so carefully crafted by Kelley, would jeopardize their impending marriage over such a silly (and sexist: ”Me man, you woman; you wear what me say”) argument. On top of that, a November story line involving Richard Thomas as a murderer called ”The Hummer” repeated a formula (take an actor known for playing sympathetic characters and turn him into a twisted monster) that won John Larroquette an Emmy the year before.

Sometimes TV shows accrue a reputation for excellence and then get a free ride when they slip into mediocrity. The Practice earned its early accolades; Kelley’s overriding talent is to write both sides of a legal argument with equal conviction — that’s what has made The Practice so compelling. This season, there was a standout story line featuring a brilliantly subtle performance by James Whitmore as a lawyer slowly going senile. And the show’s Jan. 30 post-Super Bowl episode was amusing for the way it sent these battlin’ Bean Towners to El-Lay for a murder case, but even there — yell, yell, yell, squawk, squawk, squawk.

About a year ago, Kelley was treated like TV’s iron man — a decathlon-level Emmy-magnet who’d even managed to gull Fox into running reedited versions of McBeal called Ally. My, how times have changed: Ally was canceled due to dismal ratings, as was Snoops, Kelley’s cynically bad detective show that was nothing more than a final contract fulfillment to ABC. Kelley hoped to shore up his flailing Chicago Hope by bringing Mandy Patinkin’s lively nutcase back to the show, but Hope has fizzled over the past few months, and a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate it is coming in the form of hiring James Garner for the final four episodes of the season. Garner’s a great TV actor, but this smells like a desperate stunt.

And a misguided one at that, since Garner is an actor well known for not countenancing any foolishness, and foolishness is what Kelley’s shows currently seem to be all about. The Practice: C+