Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix I, the Jury

Mistrials on "The Practice;" "SNL" versus the Onion

By Robert David Sullivan

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  Producer David E. Kelley outdid himself with all the pyrotechnics on the December 12 episode of The Practice. There was a murder trial with a remorseless defendant who was obviously guilty, a cranky judge who liked to throw lawyers into jail for contempt, Bobby O'Donnell's character assassination of the medical examiner who was just trying to do his job (but was once caught masturbating within sight of a corpse!), and even a bit of courtroom violence (the psycho defendant tried to snap the neck of twig-like Helen Gamble). Yes, it was one travesty after another, and the script included several references to the O.J. Simpson trial, just in case we missed the parallels. Unfortunately, this blanket indictment of our criminal-justice system wouldn't be complete unless it included the jury, so the episode ended with an acquittal for the smirking drug dealer who stabbed one of his customers seven times.

There are ample grounds for appeal on this one. It's highly improbable that any jury would let this lowlife go -- even in bleeding-heart Massachusetts, where The Practice is set. Kelley and company are surely aware that O.J. Simpson's lawyers exploited racial tensions to get their client off, but there was no similar factor in this case. One of the characters correctly notes that "all it takes is one idiot" to get a hung jury, but this technicality has been used too often on The Practice, which has ended countless episodes with killers returning to the streets of Boston. (On Law & Order, the reverse is occasionally true, and juries bring back convictions on the basis of incredibly convoluted and speculative evidence.) The Practice deserves credit as one of the few courtroom dramas to show how both sides of the law can ignore the truth while in the pursuit of victory. But though we get to see both defense attorneys and prosecutors wrestle with their consciences, we never see any jurors talk about their decisions. It seems a bit unfair to dismiss them as "idiots" while exonerating Bobby O'Donnell from the charge of being a sleazeball.

With so many courtroom dramas on television -- five on prime time, plus all those People's Court/Judge Judy ripoffs in the afternoon -- you'd think there would be room for a look at the jury-deliberation process somewhere. The continually changing cast of characters would be expensive and difficult to write for, so perhaps the idea would work best as a short-term series on HBO or Showtime. (I'll bet the language is less decorous in the jury room than in open court, at any rate.) But I'd also grant dramatic license to a series in which the same 12 people decide different cases in each episode. That's no more unbelievable than the way our heroes on The Practice get involved in a different "crime of the century" every week.

The tiny little trend toward ribald sit-coms without laugh tracks is over: Fox has buried all remaining episodes of the film-industry satire Action in a plutonium-lined casket somewhere in the Nevada desert, probably next to the unaired installments of The Family Guy. The show's lead character was pronounced dead of a heart attack at the end of the December 2 episode, a thoughtful gesture that should kill any false hopes among the tens of fans who appreciated Action's nasty wit.

Meanwhile, ABC's Sports Night is almost certainly on its way to oblivion, having failed to improve on its weak first-season ratings. With its smart and snappy dialogue, Sports Night brought to mind the work of 1940s screenwriter Preston Sturges, as well as the better films with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Unfortunately, some of its screwball-comedy plots didn't work well over multiple episodes. When Dana (Felicity Huffman) tells Casey (Peter Krause) that he must date other women for one year before she'll go out with him, we want to see her "experiment" played out right away, not in real time. Stories like this generally work when they happen so quickly that we don't have time to consider their plausibility. Just try watching a Sturges film in 22-minute chunks and see how funny it is. Also, TV audiences seem to smell desperation in this kind of long-range plot device -- witness the quick deaths last year of Cupid (the title character had to match 100 couples in order to win back his godly powers) and Brimstone (the lead character had to kill 113 criminals in order to ascend to heaven). It didn't help matters that ABC's promotion department tried to sell Sports Night as a slapstick comedy or a gripping drama, depending on the episode, when neither approach was ever accurate.

Not that ABC can compete with the Satanic forces at the NBC promotion department. For years, the people who coined the phrase "must-see TV" have specialized in giving away the endings of Frasier and other sit-coms and promising that every upcoming episode of ER would have a death toll slightly higher than that of Titanic. Lately, they've expanded their repertoire by highlighting scenes that aren't even in a show's next episode. Carol went into labor in NBC promo land two weeks before she did so on ER, and a scene in which happily homosexual Jack is forced to kiss a woman (his wife, but only in the strictest legal sense) seemed to be all over NBC for a month before it happened on Will & Grace.

CBS still has its lame "welcome home" promos, which are now supposed to look like someone clicking on a Web site. We'll see whether they deliver younger viewers for Steven Bochco's latest urban drama, City of Angels, which is set at a hospital in you-know-where. Angels will debut on Sunday, January 16 and then move to a permanent berth on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. The early-evening slot is something of a surprise, since Bochco's previous series (including Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Brooklyn South) are known for pushing the envelope in terms of violence and sexual content. But CBS had a pair of sit-com stinkers (Work with Me, Love and Money) to replace, and its existing 10 p.m. dramas (including Family Law and Judging Amy) are doing too well to move.

So far, the midseason shuffles have cut the number of sit-coms on the big four networks from 34 to 26, and that number is sure to drop further as more game-show formats are exhumed from TV's graveyard. (Sit-coms reached their peak in fall 1996, with 47 of them on the big four networks.)

The obituaries for Madeline Kahn, who died a few weeks ago, stressed her film and stage work, though most of them mentioned her current role (disappointingly low-key) as a neighbor on Cosby. A few writers noted her 1983 sit-com flop Oh, Madeline, which proved once again how difficult it is to duplicate the spirit of I Love Lucy. But I didn't see any reminder that Kahn was one of the classiest talents to drop in on Saturday Night Live (I remember her singing in an intentionally froglike voice on one Christmas-season episode), and neither did anyone acknowledge her greatest TV role -- as Eunice's drama teacher on an episode of The Carol Burnett Show, who began each lesson by warbling, "In our circles! In our circles!" Kahn was yet another example of a talented comic performer who couldn't find a suitable home in the 500-channel television universe.

Speaking of Saturday Night Live: its December 4 parody of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire used the same premise as a fake news item on the satiric Web site the Onion. In both cases, the contestants on the game show were malnourished people from basket-case countries (Russia on the Onion, the Balkans on SNL) trying to win a meager amount of food instead of millions of dollars. Of course, the Onion item took about a minute to read, whereas the SNL bit dragged on without much elaboration on the joke. Like too many SNL sketches, this one coasted on a celebrity impression -- this time, Darrell Hammond as grating Millionaire host Regis Philbin. At least it was funnier than those excruciatingly repetitive skits about moronic celebrities on Jeopardy!

That same episode of Saturday Night Live raised hackles at the Anti-Defamation League, which protested a sketch about a TV special called "And So This Is Chanukah." In once scene, singer Britney Spears (played by SNL guest host Christina Ricci) cheerfully assures viewers that good Christians like herself have forgiven Jews "for having killed our Lord." According to Variety, ADL national director Abe Foxman fired off a letter to NBC complaining that the scene perpetuated "anti-Semitic stereotypes at their worst." I confess that I saw the sketch as an easy way to make fun of bubbleheaded pop singers, but maybe a handful of brain-dead channel surfers took the phony Britney at face value. We can all hope that those easily influenced viewers didn't click onto the Onion last week, when its front page included a story headlined "World's Jews Celebrate Christmas with Ceremonial Re-Murdering of Christ." There seems to be a pattern involving the Onion and Saturday Night Live here: one of them comes up with a mildly funny joke and the other stretches the same concept beyond its breaking point.

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