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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

Budget, creativity needs drive changes in `The Practice'

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

HOLLYWOOD - First, The Practice began to run out of creative juice. Then ABC moved it from its longtime Sunday night home to Monday, angering executive producer David E. Kelley and irritating fans. Multiple Monday night preemptions didn't help matters.

After the show's renewal was announced in May - which came as somewhat of a surprise, given ABC's lack of vocal support for the legal drama - and the series regulars were paraded on stage in front of advertisers in New York, the cast was gutted.

Most significantly, Dylan McDermott, who starred in the series from its inception as Bobby Donnell, was shown the door. The cast changes resulted, mostly, from the slashing of the show's budget by almost half from $6.5 million per episode.

“Basically, I sat down and looked at where I thought the creative heart of this series would be in the future,” Kelley said at a press conference last week. “The decisions were all creatively driven, with the exception of Dylan's character. Dylan had such a deal in place that it was pretty much prohibitive to bring him back under our current fee structure.”

Kelley said McDermott was most upset by the change, but Kelley already had a contingency deal that if the license fee should change, McDermott would guest star in four episodes this season. A story for Bobby Donnell's return has not yet been developed. Actors Kelli Williams and Lisa Gay Hamilton may return to direct episodes, and Kelley said he'd welcome any of the departed cast - including Lara Flynn Boyle and Marla Sokoloff - to return as guest stars if story lines for their characters present themselves.

Contacting the cast to tell them who would and would not return was the most difficult day of his professional career, “and that includes days getting calls where your show is canceled,” Kelley said, sitting on a panel alongside returning stars Camryn Manheim, Steve Harris, and Michael Badalucco. “This is the first time I've been together with this group since that day, and it felt like going to a family gathering where certain members of the family are not there.”

Kelley and his cast said there's one upside to the changes: A rejuvenation of the creative juices. Most series see actors come and go through normal attrition, but that hasn't happened on The Practice.

“To keep [a character] fresh, you have to have new characters in the mix,” said Manheim. “My relationships with all the people in the firm have been the same for seven years, and to make that fresh is hard.”

James Spader will join the cast playing Alan Shore, whom Kelley said is “ethically challenged in ways the others are not.” Rhona Mitra will be introduced as Tara Wilson, a paralegal/office assistant. Kelley is close to finalizing a deal for Sharon Stone to join the cast for at least three episodes, but he would not divulge details of her character.

ABC Entertainment Television Group chairman Lloyd Braun acknowledged that ABC did harm to The Practice by moving it, though he wouldn't apologize for the time slot change. Nor should he. ABC had three new dramas and needed The Practice as an anchor. The network desperately needed to find a new hit, and giving Dragnet the 10 p.m. Sunday time slot was a good way to deploy the show. Yes, that move was at the expense of an audience favorite, but The Practice has been in decline - creatively and ratings-wise - and ABC had to begin planning for the future.

That said, two of the three new dramas failed, and the long-term viability of Dragnet remains questionable.

“What we learned is that people are used to watching a certain show at a certain time,” Braun said, “and they did not want to change.”

Asked if he knew of any precedent for a series in its eighth year to go through a wholesale cast change and survive, Kelley replied, simply, “No.”

ABC renewed midseason drama Dragnet but in the process put it through an overhaul that includes changing the title to L.A. Dragnet and moving it to 10 p.m. Saturday.

Executive producer Dick Wolf said the name change is intended as a signal to the audience that it's not the same show it was last season.

“It's turning into what I would describe as a kind of mini-rotating ensemble,” Wolf said. Ethan Embry, who starred last season alongside Ed O'Neill, will be rotating out of the series. Though he may return for guest spots, several new characters will join. O'Neill's Joe Friday will be promoted to lieutenant of the robbery homicide division and will oversee Dexter McCarron (Desmond Harrington), a hot-tempered young detective. Friday will work alongside assistant district attorney Sandy Chang (Christina Chang).

“One of the problems with doing the classic version of Dragnet was the same problem that we had the first couple of seasons on Law & Order: It was a little testosterone driven. Women like watching women,” Wolf said. “There was an opportunity to reconfigure the show because I figured, after 50 years, it was time for Joe Friday to get a promotion.”

Just don't expect to see much of these characters' personal lives. As on all of Wolf's Law & Order shows, L.A. Dragnet will remain strictly procedural.

“If people remember the first season of Law & Order: SVU, we were trying to weave in the family, we went home with Chris Meloni, you saw his wife, you saw the kids; you went home with Mariska [Hargitay] and you met her mother, and it was a disaster,” Wolf said. “All we were doing was shooting the stuff and putting it on the floor because it stopped the storytelling.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, who is on the Television Critics Association Press Tour, is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.



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