Crossovers create dilemmas

Communication is key, prep is vital, producer sez

It’s tough enough to put together an hourlong show on a weekly basis without someone throwing a bomb into the mix. Both literally and figuratively, that’s what happened to “The Practice” just before Christmas break.

“We got the final script and there were no significant changes,” co-exec producer Gary Strangis says. “Except in the end, it says, ‘The office explodes.’ ”

Complicating matters was that the episode was the lead-in to a crossover stunt with “Boston Public” being shot to air in February sweeps. Such stunts, which mix the casts of two shows — one generally more popular than the other — with an eye toward cross-pollinating ratings, are delicate work under the best of circumstances. But when Strangis read the most recent plot twist he’d just been handed from show creator David E. Kelley, he realized it was going to be a busy holiday season.

“When we told (Kelley) what the change meant to production story days, particularly for the production designers and set decorators, his jaw kind of dropped,” Strangis recalls.

As the producer in charge of logistics, Strangis has, of late, become the foremost authority on crossovers. Shortly after mixing it up with “Boston Public,” he found “The Practice” involved in another stunt, this time with ABC’s “Gideon’s Crossing.”

“The wear and tear is emotional, in trying to fit all the pieces together,” Strangis explains. “The load falls on the production staffs of both shows involved. If somebody gets sick or if it rains on a location, the results can be brutal.”

The key is communication, Strangis says, and prep is vital, especially considering that news of a stunt can come with less than 10 days’ notice.

“You try to remove as many variables as possible,” he says.

The “Gideon’s” crossover was more challenging than the one with “Boston Public,” or even an earlier stunt with Kelley’s “Ally McBeal” (on Fox), because it involved a different production company — ABC’s Touchstone, based in Hollywood — as opposed to a cross between shows overseen by the Manhattan Beach-based David E. Kelley Prods.

“The production staffs are not as dialed in to each other’s needs,” Strangis says of the interproduction company mix.

Because of the nature of the stunt, Strangis says the burden for the shoot was on the “Gideon’s” staff.

“The crossover was just our B storyline,” he says. “We were shooting mainly on their sets and fitting our characters into their show.”

That the storyline was colored by a degree of reality also proved problematical: Camryn Manheim’s character of Ellenor Frutt is rushed to “Gideon’s” Metropolitan General after suffering complications due to pregnancy. In actuality, Manheim was pregnant, and just weeks away from delivering her baby boy, Milo Jacob.

Pregnancy aside, one of the key concerns in shooting a crossover stunt is to make sure the actors are available when needed, and that neither show has to shut down to accommodate the other. That was particularly difficult during “The Practice’s” first crossover, late in its second season, with “McBeal.”

“Calista Flockhart was in 70%-80% of the shots in our episode,” Strangis says. “We did most of the filming with photo doubles, filmed eight to 10 scenes out of order, and did some pickups after that.”

While the logistics are mind-numbing, the payoff can be enormous: Before the “Ally” crossover, “The Practice” was averaging 11.3 million viewers per episode. The stunt juiced that number to 13.6 million, and ever since, the legal drama hasn’t fallen below an average of 12.7 million in any season. (The show’s move to Sundays has since sent those numbers skyrocketing past 16 million viewers an episode.)

“People who saw our show for the first time decided to come back again,” says “Practice” executive producer Robert Breech. Breech admits, however, that subsequent stunts with “Boston Public” and “Gideon’s Crossing” haven’t produced a lasting ratings boost for any of the shows — though “Gideon’s” experienced a one-time surge with the “Practice” crossover.

To Strangis’ delight, Breech says the production staff of “The Practice” can go off red alert — at least for now — with no crossovers in the foreseeable future.

“One has to be selective with this strategy,” Breech says. “You don’t want a crossover to be nothing more than a gimmick. The story has to work to inform both shows.”

Actor Michael Badalucco, has enjoyed the crossover experiment and remembers well his contribution to the “McBeal” stunt: “I was one of the many men Ally was dating at the time. I walk down the street with her and tell her that a woman’s place should be in the home. I never hear from her again.”

It’s the perfect crossover scene: short and sweet.

And no bombs.