Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In today’s post, I’m sharing my impressions of a forgotten two season multi-camera sitcom called The Practice, which aired on NBC from 1976-1977. Starring Danny Thomas as Jules Bedford, a widower who runs his own medical practice in a middle class Manhattan neighborhood, The Practice was created by Steve Gordon, best known for 1981’s Arthur, and produced by Tony Thomas and Paul Junger Witt, who just suffered a flop with the infamous Lee Grant sitcom, Fay (1975-1976, NBC) but would later go on to produce powerhouse shows like Soap (1977-1981, ABC) and The Golden Girls (1985-1992, NBC). While this series has not been released on DVD, all 27 episodes (four of which have never aired) are available to stream on Warners Archive Instant. (I signed up for a two-week free trial just to watch and record these episodes.)
Many of the comedic situations concern Jules’ relationship with his son, Dr. David Bedford (David Spielberg), who works in a much more exclusive Park Avenue practice and often clashes with his father over course of treatment for his patients. Shelley Fabares plays David’s wife Jenny, mother two his two children. Rounding out the cast — and serving comedically as much better foils to Thomas — are Dena Dietrich as Molly Gibbons, Jules’ no-nonsense nurse with whom he shares an unspoken affection, and Didi Conn as Helen, their daffy and naive receptionist. John Byner made a few appearances in the first season as an older doctor and Mike Evans (who’d just left The Jeffersons to help produce Good Times) was a recurring figure during the second year as a young intern and friend to Jules.
Having seen every episode of the series, I am struck, more than anything, by the smartness of the writing. All the situations are motivated from our understanding of the characters. Furthermore, comedy never comes at the expense of the integrity of the storytelling. It’s clearly a product of the MTM style of situation comedy — much closer to the programming of the early ’70s as opposed to some of the silliness inherent in the hits from the end of the decade. And the series is able to deliver a few laugh-out-loud moments per episode, and, as I am a tough critic, I am impressed by any series that can regularly make me laugh. Unfortunately, not all of the characters are as amusing as they need to be. As I mentioned above, Dietrich and Conn are both brilliantly funny, and coupled with Danny Thomas, who I think is even sharper than he was in the ’50s (less abrasive and much more likable), scenes with the three of them are always a delight. Meanwhile, Spielberg, while not a big laugh-getter, does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the storytelling, and the father-son relationship is really the crux of the series. So, he’s the straight-man, okay. The problem is his wife and kids.
Now I’ve been outspoken about kids in situation comedy, but they’re such a non-entity here that I am unbothered by their inclusion. (And, if I’m being completely honest, the little one does get to put over a good line or two every now and again.) The major flaw is the complete waste of Fabares as Thomas’ daughter-in-law. Since we’ve already established that David is to serve as the “straight man” or voice-of-reason, it’s incredibly foolish for her character to serve the exact same purpose. Her character is never really defined, she never gets a lot to do, and she definitely doesn’t pull her weight in the comedy department. Had her character been looser, more nuanced, and perhaps better explored, I’d be able to say — as I can with shows like He & She (1967-1968, CBS) — that the cast of characters is perfection.
14 episodes were produced for the first season. Early episodes, while establishing the characters and their location, take more of an interest in producing stories with dramatic weight (see the first two episodes, in particular). And while every single script is very well-written from a crafting point-of-view, the series doesn’t really find its funny bone until the second season. Again, every episode is smartly crafted with an original premise and a realistic arc, but this time, there are more laughs. I think most of this has to do with our growing familiarity with the characters, and the series’ increasing attempts to go bolder with its storytelling. Season Two features several big guest stars (obviously a ploy to increase the poor ratings), but their inclusion never feels gimmicky. Instead, their presence helps give Thomas even more characters off which to play. It’s wonderful.
Unfortunately, the show never caught on. It’s clearly geared to a slightly older demographic and never tries to feel hip or modern. Furthermore, the setting of the series — a doctor’s office — doesn’t really encourage light-hearted fare. As television was moving toward a few years of inanity after several of topicality, viewers wanted entertainment that didn’t make them think. And while The Practice isn’t rocket science, it is anything but trite and irreverent. So, 13 episodes were produced for Season Two. Some sources report that 11 of them aired, but my research has found that only nine of them actually did. (Their order on Warner Archive Instant supports my findings.) I think if the series was allowed to complete a second season, we would have seen the show become even funnier. And I think with a renewed emphasis on comedy and a better time slot, The Practice could have had a smart three to five year run. But this is all wishful thinking. As Doris Day would say, “Que Sera, Sera.”
For those interested in tracking down this series on the aforementioned site, I want to take the rest of the post to share my selections for some of the highlights of the series.
01) Episode 9: “The Nose” (Aired: 04/09/76)
A childhood friends implores Jules to meddle in David’s practice and keep his daughter from getting a nose job.
Written by Bud Wiser | Directed by Bill Persky
Without a doubt, the funniest episode of the first season. This installment guests Titos Vandis as one of Jules’ old friends, who comes to him with a difficult request: convince one of the patients treated at David’s practice to forgo her upcoming rhinoplasty. Fun episode with a completely original premise, this one has lots of laughs and sticks out as the best from that initial collection of 14 episodes.
02) Episode 15: “The Dream” (Aired: 10/13/76)
An eccentric psychic visit Jules with severe headaches and premonitions of her own death.
Written by Steve Gordon | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Lucille Ball (yes, LUCILLE BALL) guest stars in this episode as the psychic. As the first episode of the series that I watched (knowing of the Redhead’s appearance), I have to admit that this is a personal favorite. She and Thomas have always worked well together, and here she’s afforded the chance to play a completely different role — with moments of both comedy and drama. It’s a terrific installment. Funny and moving.
03) Episode 16: “Helen’s Beau” (Aired: 10/20/76)
Jules sets Helen up with a young intern, not knowing that the intern is gay.
Written by Sam Denoff and Dale McRaven | Directed by Tony Mordente
Like most pre-Soap sitcoms that deal with homosexuality, this one does have a little bit of that “very special episode feel,” but the story rises above its purpose, thanks in large part to a strong script that gives a lot of weight to Didi Conn’s character, probably the biggest laugh-getter of the ensemble. Barry Gordon is also great as her eponymous love interest.
04) Episode 19: “The Snow Job” (Aired: 12/01/76)
Jules and the gang help deliver a baby when they’re trapped at David’s during a blizzard.
Written by Jerome Chodorov | Directed by George Tyne
It’s a classic setup: sitcom characters trapped together in close proximity. (This time, it’s the result of a blizzard.) Throw in a classic complication: a pregnant woman. And add in a few good guest stars, among them Jayne Meadows as a snooty neighbor, and you have a highly enjoyable excursion.
05) Episode 20: “A Doctor’s Doctor” (Aired: 12/08/76)
Jules needs an operation, but doesn’t want his son to perform it.
Written by Mark Tuttle | Directed by Tony Mordente
This is perhaps the iconic manifestation of the Jules vs. David beat as the former requires an operation to remove his gall bladder. So while this episode is appealing for its connection to the series’ thematic roots, it’s also enjoyable on a more surface level due to the guest appearance of Bill Dana as Jules’ hospital roommate. (Dana had a sitcom in the ’60s that spun off of Thomas’ show.)
06) Episode 25: “Mulligan” (Never Aired)
Jules says goodbye to his best friend — a cop who died in the line of duty.
Written by Jim Rogers | Directed by Noam Pitlik
Like the brilliant Maude episode in which the entire 25 minutes consists of a monologue she delivers to a psychiatrist, this exhilarating episode is a solo effort for Danny Thomas. Jules reminisces and goes through a range of emotions as he talks to his best friend’s corpse. Some laughs, but this is powerful dramatic stuff. A tour de force for Thomas.
07) Episode 26: “Jules In Jail” (Never Aired)
Jules is arrested while visiting a patient who beckons him to a “massage parlor.”
Written by Richard Baer | Directed by Noam Pitlik
This is another sitcom-y episode, but it’s very funny and the entire cast (even Jenny) is given moments to play. Naturally, the scenes in the whorehouse are the best, and I was delighted to see guest appearances from Candace Azzara (Gloria in the second All In The Family pilot, and later a regular on the short lived Calucci’s Department) and Sid Melton (Alf from Green Acres and Charley Harper on Danny Thomas’ original sitcom).
Other notable episodes include the first three episodes, “Pilot” [a.k.a. “The Practice”], “Love And Death,” and “The Vote,” all three of which do a pretty good job of setting up the loving rivalry between father and son, “The Unsinkable Molly Gibbons,” and “Molly’s Mistake,” two heavier episodes that give Dena Dietrich some great moments to play, “Judy Sinclar,” which guest stars Marlo Thomas as a really unlikable patient (but is too heavy handed), and “Molly And Jules,” the final episode produced, in which Jules declares his love for Molly on a weekend retreat.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!