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'PRACTICE' DOES A TAKE ON CONDIT, SHOWS SERIES ISN'T OUT OF STEAM

The attack on the World Trade Center has just about ended cable television's obsession with Congressman Gary Condit and the Chandra Levy case. The only place I've seen it mentioned is in a network piece attempting to show how before the attack the nation was caught up in salacious stories that were relatively minor in comparison to the Sept. 11 tragedy.

But Condit's predicament reportedly will get fictional treatment from several law and police series this season, including NBC's "Law & Order" and CBS' "The District."

But first up is ABC's award-winning legal series, "The Practice," which effectively starts the new television season at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channel 7 with a two-hour special about a client who has some similarities to the beleaguered California congressman.

This being television, the case of State Sen. Keith Ellison exaggerates the Condit situation. Ellison is a popular and charming political figure and family man who seems more concerned about saving his career than his life for one reason: His life is his career.

We meet Ellison (Dylan Baker, who played a cop in the ABC series, "Murder One") in the opening scene, dazed and confused and staring into space after a murder has been committed in his home.

The prolonged opening scene, which runs for three minutes before a word is spoken, surveys the stunned reactions of three members of the family - Keith, his wife, Marsha (Virginia Madsen), and his 14-year-old daughter, Allison (Emily Rossum) - as Marsha's boss lies in his own blood in the couple's bedroom.

Ellison calls his lifelong pal, Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim), and hires her to defend him against murder charges.

He won't, however, initially help her by saying exactly what happened. And even when he does, it is hard to know what the truth really is. After all, he is a politician facing a personal crisis that affects all members of his family.

Baker comes from the restrained school of acting, making his character tough to read. Ellison appears to be somewhat delusional, believing that he can talk his way out of just about anything even when told that he's living in a dream world.

Madsen, a feature film actress, lends strong support as a political wife who is pretty good at hiding her own feelings as well.

And Rossum is an exceptional young actress, who plays a character who has inherited some of her parents' traits.

The case becomes a Condit-like media obsession. Ellison's charm is a problem for the newly nicknamed prosecution "Steam Team" of Assistant District Attorney Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle) and her new handsome partner, Alan Lowe (Ron Livingston, who has one of the big parts in HBO's "Band of Brothers").

Presumably, Livingston was added to the cast as a possible love interest for the tightly wound Gamble and their relationship will become steamier as the weeks go on. For now, Lowe is there to calm Helen down and prevent her from overreacting again. He's an attractive character in more ways than one and a welcome addition now that the series is in its sixth season and needs some new blood.

Like just about all episodes of "The Practice," things move at such a fast pace that you don't have much time to think about the obvious flaws in police work that make some of the coming shocks possible.

In its promotional materials, ABC promises that the episode ends with "a shocking twist," even by David E. Kelley standards.

True, the payoff is quite entertaining. But the setup allows for so few possibilities that nothing can be totally surprising.

In a way, a viewer may feel a little like the judge (played by Lane Smith), who is suspicious of one twist because Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) and his team of lawyers always seem to come up with something preposterous to give the jury reasonable doubt.

Though the season premiere of "The Practice" is hardly perfect, it has enough going for it to stop the media-inspired talk that this series is running out of steam.

Rating: 3 stars out of 4

Because of the network telethon tonight, WB has canceled the Friday premieres of its new sitcoms for the second straight week. It will be carrying "America: A Tribute to Heroes" along with the bigger broadcast networks, UPN and numerous cable networks. Good call.

Some of the cable networks that aren't carrying the benefit are unable to because they don't meet the telethon's broadcast requirements.

The Buffalo team of Don Criqui and Steve Tasker has been assigned to do the Bills-Indianapolis game for CBS. The network pregame shows, which typically rely on a lot of forced humor, are expected to be toned down this week.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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