On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review June 10, 1998 / 16 Sivan, 5758

ABC's The Practice

insightful, inciteful

By Elliot B. Gertel

DAVID E. KELLEY'S latest series, The Practice, about a fledgling law firm in Boston, has had many fine moments. It definitely showcases Kelley at his best --- serious yet witty, insightful yet affecting. Even my initial concerns about the program glorifying skilled managers at the expense of highlighting thinking and idealistic judges and attorneys, subside in the face of a genuine wrestling with moral issues and concerns about integrity which The Practice somehow delivers more effectively than Kelley's other impressive outings.

Monday evening's episode about a doctor accused of mercy killing is an outstanding case in point. Another episode about a doctor trying to force a woman to give birth by Caesarian section, and whose husband sides with the doctor against religious beliefs, is also memorable.

Yet for some inexplicable reason, The Practice continues to distract itself and its viewers with gratuitous "Jewish" issues and characters. Since the earliest episodes, law partner Ellenor Frutt (effectively played by Camryn Manheim) has represented the overweight and graceless woman trying to make it in the workplace and in life. In one of the series' first episodes, Ellenor's pampered cousin wants to sue her travel agent because sloppy arrangements for a honeymoon trip caused this cousin "sexual frustration and aggravation." Ellenor is shocked that her cousin would be willing to subject her new husband to the embarrassment of a trial in order to get her "day in court."

At first, Ellenor is polite and helpful, despite her obvious disdain for her pretty and selfish relative. But her cousin crosses the line when, frustrated with Ellenor's reluctance to bring the matter to trial, she castigates Ellenor with comments about how the latter is incapable of long-term relationships, anyway, will probably never have a honeymoon, and thus "can't accept the importance of sex." The sequence ends with Ellenor punching her cousin and knocking her out.

Punching someone out is a device that Kelley uses from time to time with obvious relish. Statistically speaking however, we may find that it is used most often for Jewish characters who overdo it --- being Jewish, that is. On Picket Fences, the only one punched out in this way was the rabbi. Here, on The Practice, the punch is reserved for a stereotype, a "Jewish American Princess," and the suggestion is that it is all right to "punch the JAP" if her Jewish cousin does so in a bid for sympathy from the audience.

It is significant, also, that in the same episode, the self-serving Jewish woman is not the only object of ridicule. She shares that "honor" with a Jewish man in the main plot, which is the trial of a black man who pushes a guard through a store window out of the indignity of being accused of shoplifting. During the trial, a Dr. Alvin Traub, a "leading urban anthropologist," is called in by the defense to testify that black men can't be held psychologically responsible while "in a pack;" that they can easily fly "off balance" in a group.

Even the defense attorneys, especially the black lawyer, are offended by this argument. It is, in fact, the black partner who asks why the argument was not use, of a father in a previous case, a physician who shot his daughter's murderer, that he behaved that way because he was Jewish. The response from his colleague is that that case was about a father's outrage because his daughter was killed.

Why this fixation on Jews? Could it be that Kelley is not using these characters in a gratuitous way at all, but rather that he regards Jews as "scriptural," or prototypical, of universal foibles, like Jacob and King David? Still, we would have to ask why it is that the Jews on this "paradigmatic" episode are all arrogant, litigious, and also interested in profiting off these traits? (It comes out during cross-examination by the prosecution that the Jewish "urban anthropologist" demands a fee of $10,000 for testifying at such trials.) The only impressive character in that particular episode was the possibly Jewish judge, Zoey Miller.

One can, I suppose, argue that Ellenor is intended to represent a sympathetic paradigm of the unattractive, brutally honest female professional who not only doesn't get her man, but who provokes negative responses from most men --- judges and clients and dates alike.

True, Ellenor can be most supportive and helpful to clients and colleagues. But she also happens to be, to my knowledge at least, the only female character in TV history who was sued by a one-time date for fraud and intentional affliction of emotional distress. She had been rude and had mistreated a blind date she met through a personals column, a podiatrist by the name of George Vogelman, obviously another litigious Jew, and one who had a greater fury than hell when scorned. During the testimony, she very cruelly remarks that she thought he was a loser, and didn't want to play "the fat girl by the punch bowl who leaves with the nerd." No less cruel, he reduces Ellenor to tears when he testifies: "Imagine what it's like to be the nerd who can't even get the fat girl by the punch bowl." He says he felt that he was desperate, but hurt to find that she "wasn't that desperate."

Now Kelley does say many insightful and noteworthy things here about the way people treat each other on dates. He correctly and thoughtfully suggests that ethics should apply to dating, too. But I wonder whether he is, even subconsciously manufacturing "scriptural Jews" in the process. For this Jewish viewer, at least, it is hard to tell which is more disconcerting: when Kelley's "scriptural Jews" are obnoxious and self-serving, or when they are nothing more than victims or doormats, as is the case in three episodes about a homicidal homosexual (played by John Larroquette) who gets away twice with stabbing to death his (Jewish) lovers.

One gets the impression nowadays that Kelley is not so much fixated on Jews as on scriptural and religious issues. Among the best episodes on The Practice are those that focus on the Catholic Church. These demonstrate an earnestness and a sense of reverence that was not evident in Kelley's earlier work, particularly Picket Fences, even when the Catholic Church was the topic.

But I was deeply impressed by an episode on The Practice about a priest who performed an exorcism on a woman without the permission of the archbishop, resulting in the heart attack death of that woman. The principal of the law firm, Bobby McDonnell (well-played by Dylan McDermott), is determined to help the priest through the legal inquiries just as the latter helped Bobby through the death of his mother. In one scene, he advises the priest in a confession booth. Far from detracting from the sanctity of that chamber in church theology, the scenario implies an expression of the layman's gratitude for the church and its sacraments by being able to assist the church. The episode is quite honest and touching in his conclusion that a decent and honorable priest has the right to be troubled by the methods and processes of the legal profession, even when that profession is used to assist the church out of the most sincere and pious motives.

"I don't question what you have done for me" the priest tells Bobby at the end. "I do question what I have done for you." If a parishioner, a lawyer, is successful at a craft which may entail deceit and guile, then has his priest been effective, even if he is "saved" by that craft? It is an important question brilliantly handled on that episode. And in one of The Practice's most riveting episodes, about Bobby tipping off a client with information he learns while spending the night with the D.A., and thus being responsible for the ambush deaths of several policemen, the symbol of the cross is effectively used in a closing scene that suggests the need to turn to abiding truths in the face of the ambiguous politics and laws of people.

At one point in the exorcism episode, the priest takes a lie detector test to prove that he did not contribute to the woman's death on purpose. The man administering the test asks him, "Are you Jewish?" He responds with a rather adamant, "No."

And so, for whatever reason, the "Jewish" theme comes up again. Is it too much to request that Kelley show the same respect to Jews and Judaism that he has rightly come to show to the Catholic Church? That would mean, I suppose, not using Jews "scripturally" as paradigms for personality problems and as fodder for gratuitous laughs.

Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel is JWR's resident media maven. He is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion.

©1998, Elliot B. Gertel