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On the Tube: 'The Practice' is holding up despite backlash against creator

Friday, January 28, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. - When Judge Roberta Kittleson (Holland Taylor) presides over a case and flips through folders, don't be fooled. She's not looking at legal briefs, she's searching for celebrity autographs.

At Kittleson's bench on the set of "The Practice," manila folders contain production notes from the 1994 baseball film "The Scout" (on April 14, 1994, Brendan Fraser ate dinner at 9 p.m. and signed out when he was done for the day). Another folder included production details from the 1990 film "Edward Scissorhands," including Johnny Depp's home phone number.

The contents of Judge Kittleson's folders won't matter in the episode of "The Practice" scheduled to air Sunday following the Super Bowl (approximately 10:30 p.m.). The firm's lawyers travel to Los Angeles to try a case in the first of a two-part episode.

"All I can say is, the judicial system in California is none too happy to see the team of 'The Practice' come in," said Camryn Manheim, who plays Ellenor Frutt on "The Practice."

TV Preview
'The Practice'

When: Sunday after "Super Bowl XXXIV"

The episode was originally devised as a crossover with Kelley's "Snoops," according to "Practice" co-executive producer Bob Breech, but that connection was dropped prior to the "Snoops" cancellation. David E. Kelley, who created "The Practice" and "Snoops," wasn't dwelling on the death of "Snoops."

"I was disappointed we never got ['Snoops'] to be a good show or at least as good as we hoped," Kelley said. "I couldn't look the people at ABC in the eye and say, 'This is a great show, don't squander it.' "

Kelley said the No. 1 lesson he took from the "Snoops" failure was to never create a show to accommodate a network's desires.

"I contractually owed another series to ABC," he said. "They wanted it sooner or later and it was in my interest to give it to them sooner rather than later. I just don't think the best shows are created that way."

Kelley had always intended to create the show and hand it off to another show runner, but after the departure of executive producer Rob Thomas after the pilot (he and Kelley didn't see eye-to-eye on the direction of "Snoops"), a new show runner was never put in place.

Kelley recently signed a new contract with Fox that doesn't require he create a specific number of programs, only that the Fox network gets the first look at any series he makes.

"It allows me to stay with 'Ally' and 'The Practice,' " Kelley said.

But he'll still be under pressure to add another show to his roster.

Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, said he's pushing for a new series from Kelley, but he doesn't expect Kelley will have one ready for this fall.

"We're going to leave this in David's hands," Grushow said. "He knows better than anybody when he will have the time and the energy to devote to creating and running a new show. What I want from David is show-running services, not just his show-creation services."

With Kelley branching out to "Snoops" and writing the season premiere of "Chicago Hope," an inevitable David E. Kelley backlash set in last fall.

"I can't take issue with the criticism of 'Snoops,' " Kelley said. "I think there were some critics who made up their minds, 'since he's doing three shows, "Ally" and "The Practice" therefore must suffer' and have declared they have suffered when I don't really think that was true."

Along with the obsession with sex in early episodes of "Ally McBeal" this season, critics have also frowned on "Ally"-like wackiness that has crept into "The Practice." And the denouement of the George Vogelman story disappointed some viewers.

Manheim said she was glad her character finally found out George Vogelman was the decapitator who dressed in nun garb just so Ellenor wouldn't face greater humiliation later.

"The thing that is most painful for my character is figuring out her judgment about her client is often wrong," she said. "You'll find she continues to have some poor judgment during the season."

Her sole disappointment with the story's conclusion was that Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle) got to kill Vogelman. "The only thing I regret is that I didn't get to shoot him, and even more than that, I didn't want to shoot him, I wanted to beat him to death with my fists."

Manheim, who only bought her own home six months ago, said the fame brought about by the success of "The Practice" still shocks her, but she hasn't made many changes in her life.

"I really am a hippie from Santa Cruz," Manheim said. "I still have not ever paid for a first-class plane ticket. I just can't do it."

She called Kelley a "freak of nature" because he can churn out so many stories.

"Nobody quite understands how he's able to do it and have a family and put out 44 scripts a year," she said. "We actually stopped trying to figure that one out a couple years ago."

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