Two worlds butt heads in “Philly”: the newfangled, life-on-the-edge law-firm drama propagated by David E. Kelley in “The Practice” and the oh-so-familiar hand-held single camera drama that bears the Steven Bochco stamp. A legal drama that finds the newly divorced Kathleen Maguire (Kim Delaney) taking on “Practice”-like ne’er-do-wells, “Philly” is a vast improvement over Bochco’s last two series, “City of Angels” and “Brooklyn South.” But it lacks a distinctive tone, something that would set it apart from Bochco’s work yet still be identifiable as uniquely his. The veneer here is pure “NYPD Blue” as Delaney takes the Metroliner south to legal settings as grimy as “Blue’s” Manhattan squad room.
Unlike “Blue” or “The Practice,” public acceptance of “Philly” will be dependent on the appeal of Delaney and her character Maguire, a woman so forcefully candid one moment and yet inexplicably driven the next. There’s no questioning her determination — just as her Diane on “Blue” was possessed with desire to set things right — and her considerable ability to play that trait is certainly maximized in Kevin Hooks’ direction and Alison Cross’ script.
The character is not that far from Diane save for her straightened hair, the subtlest of signs that we’re not in New York anymore. Big difference in the City of Brotherly Love, though, is that the males around her couldn’t be less caring. Her ex-husband is the vengeful and bitter Daniel X. Cavanaugh (Kyle Secor playing way against type), whose temper escalated to battery and crushed their marriage. Their son Patrick (Scotty Leavenworth) is a human tetherball being swung from side to side with no results; his attitude toward mom is resentful and negative, dad is Mr. Fun, no matter how devious he may in truth be behind Kathleen’s back.
The new man in her life is Will Froman (Tom Everett Scott), a bubbly womanizer and attorney looking for a quick buck and easy sex. He sets down on Maguire in the pilot following the embarrassing in-court breakdown of Maguire’s partner — another Bochco imprint: shock ’em in the first 10 minutes of the season — and soon is representing more dregs than she knows how to handle. Collectively they take on an enormous caseload and their first friction starts in segment two when he is suddenly representing the local king of kiddie porn.
Scott, who hails from “The Street” and masterfully played drummer Shades in “That Thing You Do,” is sweet and lovable, the antithesis of what one would expect this attorney to be. Whether he’s charming the ladies or shaking down a client, he relies on similar techniques of persuasion and it doesn’t ring true. He’s showing too much of a nice guy. Maybe audiences have been jaded by the portrayals of slimy lawyers on “Family Law,” “The Practice” and “L.A. Law,” but a show has to proffer a characterization that the audience can buy. Familiarity, especially in TV, can pay off handsomely.
Assistant district attorney Terry Loomis (Rick Hoffman) plays a love/hate game with Maguire and appears almost too regularly — same with the two judges who are consistently on the bench.
Outdoor shots of Philly set scenes just as they do in “Blue’s” Gotham. Director of photography Sharone Meir has an affinity for catching characters at two extremes, when they’re explicitly aware that the camera is on them and when they have no idea they’re even being filmed. It’s hard to say whether that makes Jane Kass’ editing tasks easier or more difficult, but collectively the tech team has delivered two briskly paced episodes that make no errors in showing where this program is headed.
The blotch comes from Mike Post, who has composed some thoroughly misplaced “L.A. Law”-style music that consistently misrepresents the weight of the issues at hand.