Head Cases

“If we do this, it’s not gonna be just nymphomaniacs and porn stars.” “What’s wrong with nymphos and porn stars?” “I’m just suggesting we slip in the occasional non-deviant.”
— Jason Payne (Chris O’Donnell) and Russell Shultz (Adam Goldberg), Just Legal

What happens when you cancel The Practice? Three off-shoot series sprout up. Viewers already know ABC’s Spader-Shatner show (spinoff Boston Legal), and this fall brings two new series, both written by Practice alums, about mismatched lawyers. On the WB, Just Legal sets up a May-December pairing with a predictable procedural format. Fox’s Head Cases follows two legal minds cursed with shaky sanity and is appropriately more scattered. Clients come and go, but the emphasis here is on the characters’ personal lives and their relationship with each other.

And so creator Bill Chais introduces hotshot Jason Payne (Chris O’Donnell) at a moment when he’s nearly naked and distinctly vulnerable. We meet him still dripping from the shower, with a face full of shaving cream, on the day his career, marriage, and family will fall apart. Right now, however, he’s just worried about career, as he must deliver the closing argument in “the biggest trial of [his] life.” Attempting to rehearse his closing, he suffers a panic attack.

It’s a sufficiently affecting moment, suffused in blue glow and edited with jump cuts, so of course we next get proof that he’s an ass. Now buttoned up and slicked back, he rushes through the kitchen (“Where the hell is my blackberry?”) with only a cursory acknowledgement of his son (Jake Cherry) and is scolded by his wife Laurie (Krista Allen) into promising to show up for the afternoon’s twice-rescheduled appointment with Ryan’s school psychologist. No surprise, he forgets.

It’s this misdeed, and not any misfire in court, that sets Jason’s life unraveling. Fed up, Laurie packs his bags and changes the locks. Relocated to the Four Seasons, he rants to Laurie’s answering machine until the familiar faces on the news start talking back to him: you neglected your wife, your son’s in trouble, your client is corrupt and so are you. Cue the nervous breakdown and a two-month stint at a wellness center.

If this sounds dark, Head Cases is also riddled with humor, a burden falling to Adam Goldberg as Russell Shultz, the weirdo attorney Jason must get to know as a term of his probation. As his counselor (Rockmond Dunbar) explains, “I’ve been pairing up patients, people with different disorders, just to look out for one another, check in.”

Subject to violent outbursts, Russell explodes while Jason implodes. His legal practice is a far cry from the uptight firm that drops Jason because of his nervous breakdown. Still, they’ve both learned to use all the tools in their arsenal in the name of a win. Russell is prone to blackmail and theft, and Jason has connections both “high” (Geraldo wants him on his show to talk about the 10th anniversary of O.J.) and low (the PIs his old firm assigned their dirty work). In one of several extended laughs, Jason calls in a favor from Dr. Ruth, and she testifies in support of Russell’s argument that his client’s nymphomania is a legitimate psychological disorder.

And yet, these mutual favors and lessons aside, creator/writer Bill Chais (The Practice) establishes a long-range story arc for Jason. His wife might say he can’t come back (“We don’t work,” she tells him), but there’s obviously still hope for their marriage, if only Jason can realign his priorities and start to be a real presence in his son’s life.

And Russell — the nutjob with a client Rolodex full of hookers — is surprisingly helpful in this regard. Tagging alone on a father-son outing, he wonders what kind of father has never taken his son fishing before. “The kind of father that doesn’t like fishing,” Jason says. Russell’s not impressed: “Sounds kinda selfish, don’t you think?” he asks, and Jason’s kid agrees. Russell is good, too, at mocking his partner’s highbrow trappings, like the fountain in the yard of Jason’s (former) home.

Through all this banter, O’Donnell and Goldberg share a witty, easy rapport. Though they’re playing variations on previous characters (Jason is an update on Scent of a Woman‘s sensitive preppie), the contrast between these two default personas makes Head Cases feel almost fresh. Plus, there’s lots of “adult” humor and madcap legal maneuvering. The Practice should have been this much fun.