The old-world courthouses of Beantown were more familiar to David E. Kelley than the rolling pastures of Wisconsin where he set his Picket Fences, and the Boston University Law School alum revisited them with The Practice. Its first 13 episodes allow you to see Kelley's initially testy, earnest vision: Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) and the rule-bending sharks at his low-rent firm defend their share of guilty criminals with gusto hey, gotta make a living! but at a high emotional cost. Too bad their hand-wringing and speechifying were still more insufferable than electric.
ABC stuck The Practice in a deadly Saturdays-at-10 time slot for its second year. In a featurette, Kelley says he soon abandoned his original setup ''a cauldron of attorneys trying to live ethical lives in an unethical arena'' in favor of attention-grabbing story arcs. In essence, he took what worked well for Fences, plopped it in those musty courtrooms, and let The Practice blossom. These early episodes may not snap with the ferocity that defined the series' middle years, but like the best first-year law students, they're prickly, searching, and full of promise. B