Assistant District Attorney Helen Gamble: Yesterday, I just wanted to plead this [case] out and get to a spa and have some Swedish sex god rub the cellulite out of my thighs. But then I met Mrs. Tyler over here, and suddenly I became horrified at my not being horrified over this. That young man grabbed her pet and hurled it out of a car going sixty miles an hour on a highway. Imagine . . . It was somebody’s pet. And if he gets to just throw on a tie, stand contrite, say he’s sorry and that’s the end of it, then well, who are we? What he did was depraved, it was sick. And if we don’t punish him, well, maybe we get the society we deserve.
Poor Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle). She’s such a good attorney, she truly believes in what she does, and yet, there hasn’t been an attorney on television lose more cases since D. A. Hamilton Burger squared off against Perry Mason. It’s a wonder the woman has managed to keep her job, considering that her few victories tend to occur in minor cases, such as the pet abuse case she was arguing above, and rarely in the dozens of high profile cases that come across her desk. The reason for this is that poor Ms. Gamble must repeatedly go up against the exceptional lawyers of the firm, Donnell, Young, Dole, and Frutt, more commonly known as the protagonists of The Practice. Led by senior partner Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott), these six lawyers are among the toughest you’ll find, with the knowledge and skill necessary to get virtually every client a favorable outcome. You cut off your date’s head and kept it in your medical bag overnight? Dismembered a nun and shoved her body parts into a closet? Not to worry. No matter how much evidence Helen Gamble might gather, these lawyers can get you out and walking the streets of Boston in no time.
This is the world of David E. Kelley’s The Practice, a courtroom drama whose complicated storylines and engrossing characters have made the series a top twenty ratings hit for five seasons: the lawyers don’t win every case, but there seems to be a correlation between how full of twists and turns a case is and the probability of their victory. Unlike many courtroom dramas, The Practice does not wrap up these cases in the course of an hour, often taking several episodes before the storyline reaches a conclusion. Even then, viewers can never be sure that the players involved in the case won’t pop up again, plagued with further legal problems or intent on wreaking havoc among the members of the firm. As a result, you can’t watch The Practice occasionally, like Murder, She Wrote or Touched By an Angel. You must commit to it; viewers who miss a few episodes or pay only cursory attention while watching will miss important plot elements.
Writer-producer-creator Kelley seems to want the focus of The Practice to be an in-depth analysis of how the justice system works, or, far too often, fails to work, despite the best efforts of all those involved. Kelley is no stranger to the courtroom drama, having worked as a writer on L.A. Law and as producer-writer on Ally McBeal and Picket Fences. But unlike these shows, The Practice examines legal strategies and rules of courtroom behavior that dictate the outcome of many cases, rather than the characters’ personal lives. Watching the show over an extended period will definitely provide the viewer with an education about how justice is served—or not. The case involving the nun-killer is a perfect example of how police inefficiency can allow a guilty man to walk. If the point isn’t news, the detail is particularly repulsive, and so, jarring. We don’t like to believe that men who rape and dismember nuns are walking our streets, free to kill again, thanks to the system designed to protect us. You’d expect that in the idealized world of television, such a man would get the punishment due him. But The Practice doesn’t present that idealized world. Instead, it emphasizes the fact that the technicalities of justice apply to everyone.
Invariably, such spectacular and unresolved storylines raise ethical questions about the obligations of both district and defense attorneys. The line between what is legal and what is moral is so thin at times that it results in a conflict between passion and reason, as characters must chose between their duty as officers of the court and that gut feeling that tells them to ignore the rules so long as justice is ultimately served. The Practice doesn’t present us the answers to these conflicts in neat, everybody-lives-happily-ever-after packages. Often, there is no clear answer, and the fact that the attorneys arguing these issues are so adept at what they do means that all sides of the issue will receive a fair presentation.
In another recent case, Gamble interrogated a suspect accused of killing a woman during a carjacking. During the interrogation, the young man’s lawyer, Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco), arrived at the police station and asked that the questioning cease until he could return in the morning to consult with his client. Helen assured Jimmy that she would stop, but nevertheless continued the questioning. Not only did she not tell the suspect that his lawyer had been to see him, she also informed him that the Governor of Massachusetts was at the station, eager to make this case a test case for the new capital punishment law that the state is ready to enact. In addition to lying to Jimmy, Helen lied to the suspect; not only was the governor not waiting outside, Massachusetts has no legislation pending to adopt the death penalty. Did Helen do anything illegal in the course of her interrogation? Not at all. Did she act ethically? That question is more difficult to decide.
Helen, of course, maintained that her actions were perfectly acceptable, as they didn’t fall outside the law, and that she was only using the same sort of underhanded strategy that defense attorneys are allowed to use all the time without question. Jimmy, in turn, argued that the questioning should have stopped immediately upon his request, and that the lie regarding the death penalty was paramount to coercing a confession under duress. Both sides make valid points, and the viewer is left questioning the structure and efficiency of our legal system. Our immediate reaction may be that Helen is wrong to lie to get a confession, but when the suspect is freed, we feel disappointed that the court system has let an obviously guilty man go.
Because there is no clear “right” or “wrong” answers in many of these cases, The Practice does not present us with lawyers who celebrate each and every victory, knowing that they have seen justice served, in the manner of Matlock or Perry Mason. These defense attorneys understand that many of their clients are scumbags, and they are caught between doing their job and honoring the principle that the guilty in our society should receive appropriate punishment. Even though Lindsey Dole (Kelli Williams) is able to get the aforementioned nun-killer off and Jimmy is able to get his carjacking client freed, they are not proud of their accomplishments. This struggle between duty and justice is most evident in the character of Eugene Young (Steve Harris). Young must not only justify his actions to himself, he must also explain them to his teenaged son, who boasts to his friends that his dad can get any murderer off scott-free. Young’s prowess in representing his clients has such a strong effect on his son that it eventually becomes the basis of a custody battle between Young and his ex-wife. How can a man defend trash by day and serve as a role model for an impressionable teen by night? This is just another of the moral questions with which the lawyers struggle.
With such heavy emphasis on moral questions and cases, there is little time left for character analysis outside of the courtroom. We are not invited into their homes as a rule, and little exploration is made of their personal lives, except when it affects or is the cause of litigation. Take, for example, Rebecca Washington (Lisa Gay Hamilton). In the series’ first season, Rebecca was the firm’s receptionist. At the beginning of season two, she announced to her co-workers (and the viewing audience) that she had been attending night school, just passed the bar exam, and was ready to start practicing law. This past season we learned that Rebecca was a devout Jehovah’s Witness when she was injured in an explosion and her mother refused to allow a blood transfusion on religious grounds. Viewers had no knowledge of Rebecca’s background until it came up in larger storylines.
One notable exception to this lack of personal development is the recent marriage of Bobby and Lindsey, but even this relationship has been used to examine the dynamics of office politics within the law firm’s partnership structure. Additionally, this season has seen Lindsey and her co-worker Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim) dealing with pregnancies, but this is most likely due to the actresses’s real-life pregnancies, rather than a shift in the series’ focus to characters’ private lives. In fact, if their storylines didn’t involve stalkers and serial killers, viewers would know nothing about the characters’ personal lives.
With a less talented cast, the omission of personal detail would be painful. Fortunately, The Practice has one of the strongest casts on television, and the audience is able to know the characters through their dedication to the practice of law. Manheim and Badalucco, as well as Holland Taylor (as Judge Roberta Kittelson), already have well-deserved Emmys for their work, and Harris, Boyle, Williams, and McDermott have all received nominations. As a further bonus, The Practice elicits exceptional performances from its guest stars, which include some of the best actors working. Oscar winner Linda Hunt is delightful and down-to-earth in her semi-regular role as Judge Zoey Hiller, and such stars as Marlee Matlin, Henry Winkler, James Whitmore, Jr., Edward Hermann, and Bruce Davidson have all given excellent performances on the show. However, none has made more lasting impressions than Michael Emerson, as a serial killer who stalks Lindsey after she defends him, and the great Beah Richards, as an Alzheimer’s sufferer who unwittingly confesses to her abusive husband’s murder during a competency hearing. These memorable performances are both chilling and tragic.
What attracts these stars to the show is the opportunity to portray characters of depth caught in extraordinary situations. Thirty years ago, the cases and situations presented on The Practice would have seemed far-fetched and gross misrepresentations of the judicial system. But, the show contends, in an effort to stay ahead of police technology, criminals go to new lengths to be creative and destructive. And as our society has become more litigious, we have developed a new fascination with high publicity cases. We watch in stunned amazement as two awkward teenagers launch a full-scale military attack on a public school. And we ask one another how a jury could possibly award a woman two millions dollars because McDonald’s served her hot coffee. Court TV, Cops, America’s Most Wanted, Judge Judy—we tune in to reassure ourselves that the bad guys are dumb enough to get caught, and that there is someone out there making sure the little man is protected. And when a big case comes along, one with dark corners and scandalous motives, we lose all perspective, missing work to watch testimony and placing bets on the outcome. As many Americans can tell you where they were when the O. J. verdict was announced as can remember man’s landing on the moon.
As citizens, we have so many questions when we are fed only bits and pieces of a trial. Despite the fact that most tv viewers can tell you their opinions on the guilt or innocence of O. J., the Menendez brothers, JonBenet’s parents, and countless others, very few can explain the legal maneuverings that were involved in these cases. What did the jury know that we didn’t, and what did we know that they were not privy to? The Practice capitalizes on this desire to know more. The show takes us inside that legal maneuvering, and helps to explain why and how this guy walked free while that women was sent away for life. The show rarely takes us into the jury room, but it offers us possible scenarios the jury may consider at various stages throughout each trial. These “lessons” in courtroom psychology are not presented in a moralizing form, with the lawyers crawling up onto their soapboxes to begin “the legal lesson of the week” with a sly, get-it wink to viewers. The lessons are given as advice to scared and confused defendants and victims, people who have entered a complicated world which has the power to control their future. That the viewer gains insight as the characters do marks one of the strengths of the series.
The world moves at such a rapid pace now. As soon as the verdict is in for one high-profile defendant, our attention turns to the next big case. Every day, our local papers are filled with arrests, unsolved crimes, jury selections, and so on. It’s easy to forget that in the center of the swirl of media attention are humans in despair. Our anger at Susan Smith for drowning her children is so strong that we fail to notice the devastated father who has lost his entire family. The Practice puts faces on the victims, defendants, and attorneys who are caught in the media circus. But, more importantly, it lets us know that all crime inflicts pain; an elderly woman whose only pet has been cruelly killed deserves our sympathy, too. It may seem like such a small thing, the loss of a pet, but cruelty leaves scars, and this series asks us to see them. The Practice shows us the side of the story we won’t see on Court TV, which, really, is the most important side to consider.