By season 8, The Practice was years removed from the spunky TV series about a down on their luck law firm practicing criminal law, defending the dregs of society. Original leads Dylan McDermott and Kelli Williams had left the show, along with long time regulars Lisa Gay Hamilton and Lara Flynn Boyle. All that remained of the original cast were Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim and Michael Badalucco. By season 8, The Practice was a shell of what it once was and had evolved into yet another clone of LA Law.
Enter James Spader.
Spader, the quirky and sometimes weird actor who was typecast in the 80s as a rich kid asshole (think Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero) or a weirdo asshole (think Mannequin and Baby Boom) had become something of a romantic lead in the 90s, albeit a strange, dysfunctional romantic lead (think sex, lies and videotape, White Palace, Crash and most of all, 2002’s Secretary). He’d never done series television, so immediately there was a curiosity about Spader deciding to join a show on its last legs.
The original cast seemed tired with their roles, parts that had been hammered down to basic lawyer stereotypes. Harris’ Eugene Young is angry 90% of the time, the other 10% proselytizing; Manheim’s Elenor Frutt remained the bleeding heart, compassionate one prone to fits of rage, and Badalucco continued to infuse Jimmy Berluti with an working man’s sensibility that made him the most likable one of the bunch. But there was no growth in their characters.
Spader’s character, Alan Shore, arrives into the offices of the firm in the opening scenes of the season 8 premiere. He’s a weasel, immediately recognizable as unscrupulous (he was fired from his previous firm for embezzling) and skulks around like a wounded rat. He’s so out of place with the rest of the cast that you can’t take your eyes off of him. My initial thoughts were: “He’s going to find a way to make this show unique, or this season is going to be a train wreck. Either way, it’ll make for interesting TV.”
Spader molds Alan Shore before our eyes. While he starts off as just another one of the assholes the actor perfected in the 80s, by midseason, Spader takes control and begins to have a lot of fun with the character. Indeed, he’s so good and makes this antihero so appealing, he becomes the character you root for the remainder of the season. You can see the roots of Spader’s current hit character, Raymond “Red” Reddington, from NBC’s The Blacklist, in Shore.
Near the end of season 8, Shore handles the case of an old friend who murdered his wife. He gets the guy off (that’s his job, after all), but the case affects him. The high moral code of the firm has begun to sink in, and Shore almost wants to be a better man. No sooner is he questioning himself, than the firm fires him, leading to a shift in the series and setting up the end run of The Practice. Shore sues the firm and hires a powerful attorney to help him win his case.
Enter William Shatner.
The television legend guest starred as the character Denny Crane, a conceited, possible insane lawyer who refers to himself in the third person. However, he’s brilliant, especially in the courtroom. He’s so good that one need only say his name and fear is struck in the hearts of opposing counsel.
The result of the lawsuit doesn’t really matter. The moment Shatner and Spader begin sharing the screen together, The Practice shifts in tone. The more fascinating scenes in the show involve watching these two eccentric actors chewing scenery, rather than the “important” cases the law firm has to handle.
By the end of season 8, The Practice would be cancelled. However, with Alan Shore and Denny Crane, ABC had the makings of a new legal series on its hands. The next fall, Boston Legal, starring Spader and Shatner, would premiere. It would run for five seasons. Spader and Shatner would win Emmys for their roles on this season of The Practice. They would then go on to win Emmys for the same roles in Boston Legal.
The final season of The Practice is now available on DVD from Shout! Factory. The DVD set is lacking special features, but it’s worth owning for fans of The Practice and/or Boston Legal, as well as anyone wanting to see two television masters working magic together.