By Ken Tucker
Updated October 10, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Practice: Carin Baer

I thought it would be pretty easy to figure out which side I’d be on when it came to the Sunday-night lawyer showdown between ”The Lyon’s Den” — starring Rob Lowe as a crusading courtroom avenger — and The Practice, now with James Spader as…well, as the character that the booted Dylan McDermott would’ve played all these years if he’d just owned up to the fact that Bobby Donnell was a smarmy hypocrite. ”The Practice” was the logical choice, right? After all, it’s gone low-rent (and I mean that almost literally, after creator David E. Kelley struck a deal with ABC to keep the show on the air by firing half the cast), and when it comes to lawyer shows, I want tough SOBs, not Atticus Finches.

I’m pretty sure Kelley intends Spader’s Alan Shore to be about 90 percent creepo. As an embezzler fired from his last job, Shore enters the dowdy offices of ”The Practice” with disarming aplomb, offering his services to the understandably dazed-looking remaining cast members, Camryn Manheim, Steve Harris, and Michael Badalucco. Which is where ”Practice” begins to lose me: The firm takes him in, gives him important cases, lets him say to a potential female client, ”I touched myself with you in mind last night.” In other words, Spader immediately succumbs to Kelley Vision, that ”Picket Fences”/”Ally McBeal”/”Boston Public” view of the world where anyone can do or say anything completely unmotivated and outrageous, and we’re supposed to find it amusing, titillating, and daring.

Honey, DARING is putting a hambone like Spader in the same frame with guest star Sharon Stone, who showed up in week 2 hell-bent on proving that, if nothing else, her three-episode ”arc” will make her work in ”Diabolique” look subtle. She plays a lawyer, but one who’s now a client, accused by her firm of being ”a loon” — she talks to God, you see, and believes bald men can ”access her thoughts.” Being a slumming movie star, Stone is permitted to make the opening statement AT HER OWN TRIAL, yammering with a severe frown (someone’s been watching her ”Law & Order” reruns!) and leaving Spader to sit and stare blankly, as though trapped in a remake of ”Secretary” in which he gets the spanking.

Basically, I like the actor — couldn’t care less about the show.