Lynette Rice
January 09, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Over the last four months, the lawyers of ABC’s The Practice have successfully defended a schizophrenic killer, avoided an embarrassing malpractice suit, and saved one of their own from being disbarred. But perhaps their greatest victory has been winning over viewers. Despite an unprecedented decision by creator David E. Kelley last May to fire half the original cast, the eight-year-old show — which seemed destined for a death sentence — has managed to spark renewed buzz and attract 32 percent more 18-to 49-year-old viewers in its return to Sunday night, compared with last season, when it floundered on Mondays. And Kelley has one man to thank: James Spader. The 43-year-old ’80s-movie vet (sex, lies and videotape; Pretty in Pink), last seen spanking Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary, stepped in as morally ambiguous Alan Shore, having never even watched the show.

Spader’s antics as a smug attorney who can’t be bothered by rules (He hides murder weapons! He violates attorney-client privilege!) has helped the drama — once mired in the weekly courtroom tirades of Bobby (the axed Dylan McDermott) and tired stories about his failed marriage — regularly win its time slot among adults 18 — 34 and those elusive male viewers. The show isn’t back up to its high of two years ago, when it aired Sundays, but how’s this for a last-minute stay of execution: ABC is close to ordering the show for another season. ”I’m obsessed with it!” says ABC Entertainment prez Susan Lyne.

”He’s certainly proven so far to be a complex convolution of dichotomies,” says Spader of his character. ”He just seems to be endearing and appalling at the same moment.” And yet only someone as talented as Spader can pull that off, says Kelley. ”It’s very difficult to walk a line where your characters are behaving in overtly unethical ways, yet ask your audience to care. What’s so gifted about James is that he’s been able to get people to like him without asking for it. In fact, he invites everyone to condemn him.”

Kelley, whose only success since Ally McBeal has been Boston Public (he failed miserably with last season’s girls club and this season’s Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire), is not the only show runner to pull off a rescue mission for an aging series. A similar success story is playing out at NBC, where the 11-year-old Frasier is enjoying a creative renaissance, thanks to the return of writing vets Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan. With engaging new plotlines (Lilith’s return; Frasier’s son Frederick going Goth), Frasier is up 15 percent since May and regularly comes in second on Tuesdays — enough to make NBC second-guess plans to shutter the show when its contract expires in May.

”The hallmark of Frasier has always been that it’s both very funny and touches your heart,” says Ted Frank, NBC’s senior VP of current series. ”And I think that’s the quality that’s really back this year.”

So what’s up with the newfound respect for elders at ABC and NBC? The lackluster freshman class may have something to do with it. ABC hasn’t been able to launch a bona fide hit drama in years (despite winning kudos, even Alias only pulls about 9 million viewers each week), and a bird in hand is much better than a bunch of dodos like Threat Matrix and 10-8.

And NBC? Well, you all saw Coupling. Actually, you didn’t–which is why the network canceled the series and is desperate for comedies. Another year of Frasier could help, though NBC and the show’s production company, Paramount Television, are far from sealing a deal. Sources say Paramount is expected to decline NBC’s initial lowball offer. At $5.2 million per episode, Frasier is one of the most expensive comedies, thanks to Kelsey Grammer’s status as one of the highest-paid actors on TV. Yet working in NBC’s favor is the star’s willingness to come back for another season, and sources say he might even be willing to cut his reported $1.6 million-per-episode salary to do it.

Lloyd remains skeptical and continues to prepare for the end in May:”Maybe it’s a low-level panic and NBC doesn’t know what’s going to happen next year, so they take comfort in leaving open a crack for some reason”

As for Spader, he’s not ready to commit to a second year yet ”I don’t want to overwhelm mysel”), but Kelley thinks he’ll return if asked.”He seems to be having a great time, as we are with him,” says a juiced Kelley.”Why shouldn’t James be having a good time?” adds The Practice’s Steve Harris (Eugene Young) with a twinge of envy.”His character gets to break all the rules.” Just like the show he’s on.

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