May 16, 2012



For a show perceived as standard medical soap, PRIVATE PRACTICE has gone through quite a few permutations in style and focus over its 5 seasons.


Conceived originally as a light-hearted spinoff to Grey’s Anatomy, built around Grey’s character Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh), aka Derek’s first wife, the show tried to pull humor from Addison’s move to Santa Monica, joining a clinic populated by a group of laid-back LA specialists.  Pete Wilder (Tim Daly) practiced herbalism and other new-age cures, psychiatrist Violet Turner (Amy Brenneman) and pediatrician Cooper Friedman (Paul Adelstein) had a rom-com best friends relationship, Addison’s long-time friends Sam and Naomi Bennett (Taye Diggs and Audra McDonald) were trying to practice together despite being divorced, the receptionist (Chris Lowell) was a midwife, and local hospital administrator Charlotte King (KaDee Strickland) was a harridan.  Later on, additional shrink Sheldon Wallace (Brian Benben) was introduced as pure comedy relief.

The dynamic didn’t work.  Practice didn’t have the engine that Grey’s did of all the doctors being in the same internship program, helping and competing with each other, and the result was that the storylines felt disconnected.  The comedy was too broad, and the mix of sex, medical crisis and humor didn’t work as well with established middle-aged actors as it had with twentysomething unknowns.  The show was shaky, both creatively and in the ratings.

To its credit, Practice (through its creator Shonda Rhimes) kept re-inventing itself.  The practice re-formed and then re-formed again (even their offices changed).  McDonald and Lowell left, Benben was made a regular, and new characters Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone), aka Derek’s sister, and Jake Reilly (Benjamin Bratt) were brought in.  Most important were shifts in tone:  the show became much more of a true ensemble than a vehicle centering on Addison, other characters were toned down (Sheldon became less silly, Charlotte became much more nuanced and ended up marrying Cooper), and the show overall became significantly darker and more serious.

Although along with the rest of primetime TV its ratings have been declining (and it was never a breakout hit to begin with), Private Practice has hit its stride dramatically in the past couple of seasons.  A lot of that had to do with central, ambitious story arcs.  Last year, Strickland was remarkable in a rape storyline that (until late in the season, when it became gimmicky) played out with brutal emotional honesty for Charlotte and Cooper.

This year has been dominated by two such stories.  In one, Cooper discovered that he had a son (Griffin Gluck) from a one-night stand whose mother had never contacted him, but did now because, as it turned out, she was dying.  The relationship between the boy, his mother, and Cooper and Charlotte, has been developed very well, with Strickland again particularly superb in depicting Charlotte’s slow emotional journey to motherhood.

The major story arc, though, has belonged this year to Scorsone, whose Amelia lapsed into drug addiction, went through rehab, cratered again, then had to endure a horrifying pregnancy with a baby who would be born without a frontal lobe to his brain.  The conclusion to that story was at the center of tonight’s season finale, written by Rhimes herself and directed by Co-Executive Producer Ann Kindberg.  As is not unusual in the episodes credited to Rhimes (she also wrote last year’s rape episode), the hour didn’t stint on the gamut of grim emotions faced by Amelia and the other characters.  Scorsone, who’s been strong throughout the storyline, did yeoman work in this final chapter.

Private Practice, of course, will never not be about Addison, and this year, to the relief of viewers, the show finally resolved her lengthy struggle to have a baby (which she did, through adoption).  The romantic triangle of Addison, Sam and Jake is perhaps the show’s weakest part, but at least it’s not the series’ centerpiece anymore.  The season’s other weak piece of narrative, about the disintegration (and now reintegration?) of Violet and Pete’s marriage, may also mercifully have reached its melodramatic conclusion, although next season has a cliffhanger mercy-killing murder charge hanging over Pete’s head.

Word has it that the upcoming season of Private Practice will be its last (the ratings are just OK, the cast is expensive, and after 6 years, contract extensions for such prominent actors get pricey).  It’s a show that’s worked very hard to last as long as it has, and while no one will be putting it on Emmy short lists, that’s a genuine accomplishment in the immediate-gratification world of network TV.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."