By Ken Tucker
Updated October 17, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

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 junkyard dawgs, tough SOBs, not Atticus Finches. No way was I going to be drawn in by Lowe, whose best actor’s trick is to make his granite jaw seem tremulous when he has to register high-minded emotion. (Lowe is so lightweight, his version of Gregory Peck’s jury-trial classic would have to be retitled To Kill a Moth.)

After all, by Den’s third episode, someone has already referred to Lowe’s Jack Turner as ”the most principled lawyer in this building.” (Lowe’s shameless reaction: smiling until his dimples cringe and murmuring a soft, aw-shucks ”Thank you.”) And here I thought, from all the ”Practice” ads I’d seen, that it was Spader who’d be playing a smug twit.

Which, I hasten to assure you, he is. But one big difference between these shows is that while I assume Lowe’s character is meant to be 99 percent hero, 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 ”Practice” offices 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. With Den, it’s the reverse. Created by 24 coexec producer-writer Remi Aubuchon with assists from exec producers including Brad Grey (The Sopranos) and Dan Sackheim (Kingpin), ”Den” uses Lowe brilliantly — as a sap, a foil for the real action. While the actor who wanted more face time than he got on West Wing preens, the show is up to wonderful no-good. Lowe’s Jack is the only decent man in a mammoth, corrupt D.C. firm filled with jackals high (Traffic’s James Pickens Jr. and Early Edition’s Kyle Chandler are amoral, you know, lawyers) and low (Frances Fisher as Chandler’s deliciously evil secretary). Elizabeth Mitchell, wasted two years ago in the flop corrupt-TV-news show ”The Beast,” is perfect as a recovering-alcoholic attorney enlisted by Chandler’s Grant Rashton to discredit Jack. Suicide, bribery, sexual and political hanky-panky…all this, plus Rip Torn as Jack’s lizard-skinned senator father, who’s colluding with the firm on some magnitude of nefariousness that Satan would probably have to start a blog to fully explicate.

Indeed, the more melodramatic and nighttime-soapy ”Den” is, the better it becomes. And unlike Spader, who seems aware he was hired to give Kelley’s ludicrousness the breath of life, Lowe looks like he fervently believes he’s found a vehicle to win him an Emmy — as Best Good Boy. Lyon’s Den: B Practice: C