Like all David E. Kelley's series, the legal drama's gotten desperate, says Mark Harris

By Mark Harris
Updated May 11, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Dylan McDermott: Andrew Eccles/ABC

Why ”The Practice”’ killed off a major character

Something compelling finally happened on ABC’s ”The Practice” May 6, in the last minute of the second to last episode of an extremely uncompelling season. Assistant D.A. Richard Bey (played by Jason Kravits) was shot and killed, presumably by a hitman carrying out his threat to retaliate for a recent conviction. I say ”killed” even though we have not technically gotten the word that Richard is dead, because he was shot about 147 times and the last time we saw him, his eyes were open and fixed, which is TV code for ”dead.”

If Bey is dead, it’s about time (and that’s no disrespect to the able actor who played him). David E. Kelley’s legal drama, an acclaimed Emmy winner when it first debuted five seasons ago, has lately threatened to become the kind of slapped together, predictable, congenitally risk averse show that exemplifies the vast difference between traditional network TV and a show like HBO’s ”The Sopranos,” which it has the remarkable misfortune to follow.

This season, ”The Practice” (Sun., 10 p.m., ABC) became a series in which the preposterous was consistently confused with the interesting. In one cliffhanger, Rebecca (played by Lisa Gay Hamilton) opened a letter bomb meant for Lindsay (Kelli Williams) and the room exploded. Did Rebecca die? No, although that certainly would have been a more legitimate plot twist than the hip fake a couple of seasons back that converted her from secretary to lawyer in two episodes (something about night school). No, instead, Rebecca went into a coma, became the subject of a silly right to die plotline, and then the center of an episode in which she mysteriously disappeared from her hospital bed that would have been right at home on ”Passions.”

There was also a far more serious misstep, the culmination of a multi episode plotline in which Bobby (Dylan McDermott) essentially hired a hitman to ”scare” a client who had threatened his wife. When the hitman killed the client, Bobby went on trial for murder.

There were two major problems with this storyline. First, Bobby was, if not guilty, too close to it for comfort, and series creator David E. Kelley, who since the birth of ”The Practice” has struggled in vain to make its main character interesting, had to turn cartwheels to try to convince viewers that the show’s hero was not, suddenly, an unredeemable cretin and thug. Second, Kelley — and this has happened more than once — didn’t give his audience credit for enough intelligence. Did anyone really expect Bobby to be found guilty, sentenced to prison, and written out of the series? Come now.

David Kelley writes, rewrites, or oversees too many episodes of too many TV series, something everyone in the industry seems to realize but him. Jokes from ”The Practice” on Sunday night get recycled on ”Boston Public” Monday night. Plotlines get used and reused and rereused until they’re completely threadbare (”Boston Public,” still in its first season, is now on its fourth or fifth plotline about teachers sleeping with students.) Logic, character continuity, and invention get sacrificed. Throw the ongoing mess of ”Ally McBeal” (not his fault, admittedly) into that mix, and you have more of a workload than anyone could bear — close to 70 hours of television a season.

By contrast, ”The Sopranos” produces 13 new episodes a year, and series creator David Chase has his name on fewer than half of them. He seems to know that writing an hourlong script isn’t something you do between lunch and dinner. Speed doesn’t count. Quality does.

So tell me, when you get to work on Monday morning, which Sunday night show is everybody still talking about? I’m guessing it’s NOT ”The Practice.”