great drama series is addictive in absolutely the worst way, maybe costing you a friendship or two and definitely leading to a serious dependency on the evasive joys of voice mail. ''The Practice,'' David E. Kelley's weightier counterpart to ''Ally McBeal,'' has developed into the year's most addictive hour of television, despite its unfortunate Sunday-night time slot. It is, as the Emmys determined this year, TV's best drama - if not its most watched, which, of course, is ''ER.''
Maybe not the most watched, but it is the year's best TV drama.
It is also TV's most independent-minded drama. At networks these days, multi-episode plot arcs on prime time are frowned upon. Theoretically, they turn a series into a cult and alienate new viewers, a notion that was supported by the failure of ''Murder One,'' the smart Steven Bochco drama that spent its first season on a single case. And so you can see hourlong shows like ''ER'' compromising their artistic integrity to honor such ''wisdom,'' resolving quickie plots by the end of each episode and de-emphasizing longer-brewing story lines, which never come to a head anymore. But with ''The Practice,'' Kelley has simply ignored the taboo, stringing tense cases over four or more episodes and then bringing guest characters back later for another round.
''The Practice'' is also beautifully acted - always important, but even more so in a show that is about the courtroom as stage. While ''Ally McBeal'' continues to goof whimsically on our litigation-crazy culture (especially with the choice casting addition of the suit-slinging Ling), ''The Practice'' zeroes in on legal theatricality in the post-Court TV age. The powerful cast is led by Kelli Williams, Dylan McDermott, and the always awesome Camryn Manheim.
And ''The Practice'' is the best news about a mostly disappointing TV year. There was a proliferation of newsmagazines like ''Dateline'' and reality shows with crude concepts like ''Busted on the Job.'' There were almost 40 new fall sitcoms and dramas based on some of the thinnest ideas ever brought to the small screen, from NBC's Bo Derek vehicle, ''Wind on Water,'' to the mother of all TV missteps, UPN's ''The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.'' ''Ellen,'' one of the triumphs of 1997, devolved from a witty look at lesbian life in a straight culture into a preachy and sometimes self-pitying bummer. And in 1998 there was a trend of older, quality shows succumbing to mediocrity, especially ''Frasier,'' which plummeted on the sophistication meter the minute it ascended to the ''Seinfeld'' slot. Even ''Seinfeld,'' beloved and great, ended in a massive whimper - a blazing nine-year relationship down to smoke and ash.
But the best of 1998 did include a pair of farewells that were as classy as the last ''Seinfeld'' was tedious. ''The Larry Sanders Show'' finished off its brilliant six-year run with an hour of tears, bile, and sly hysterics, the latter thanks to guests David Duchovny and Jim Carrey. ''Sanders'' and star Garry Shandling kept the entertainment business honest for a few half-hours every year, and they'll be missed. And ''NYPD Blue'' gave actor Jimmy Smits a touching send-off last month, letting his Bobby Simone die slowly and painfully in a sterile hospital room. Once so tall and strong, and sure enough to have dodged many a bullet on the job, Simone was felled in the end by his own human heart. The message: No one can dodge the hand of fate. The graceful 90-minute goodbye, notable for keeping Sipowicz's self-involved emotionality at a minimum, was marred only by an excess of commercials.
In 1998, the comedy situation became increasingly dicey. With ''Seinfeld'' gone and ''Frasier'' slipping, only ''Friends,'' ''Just Shoot Me,'' and sometimes ''Everybody Loves Raymond'' and ''Dharma & Greg'' remained worthwhile. (Episodes of ''Lateline,'' ''Maximum Bob,'' and HBO's ''Sex and the City'' were bright spots, but few in number.) ''Just Shoot Me,'' in particular, matured into a wonderfully barbed half-hour, with some ace comic delivery by Wendie Malick and David Spade, and ''Friends'' continued to charm with witty scripts and superior ensemble acting. Meanwhile, only a pair of fall sitcoms have shown promise so far: ''Sports Night,'' which is ambitious but overly earnest, and ''Will & Grace,'' which has a fresh premise but stars who are less engaging than the supporting players. (Naturally, thanks to network self-destructiveness, they are slotted against each other.) The rest of the lot, from ''Caroline in the City'' to ''Jesse,'' is pretty, bland, and sleep-inducing.
Cable continued to deluge us with made-for-TV movies, a few of which were extraordinary. Showtime's ''The Baby Dance'' took a premise loaded with ''issue movie'' potential - a wealthy couple purchasing a poor couple's baby - and transformed it into a complex story that explored the emotional depths network movies avoid. Laura Dern and Stockard Channing were pitch perfect. A&E also delivered the goods with an adaptation of ''Tom Jones'' that approached Henry Fielding differently from the way director Tony Richardson did in 1963, taking advantage of its six-hour stretch to flesh out the heroic nuances of Tom's randy adventures. HBO came through with ''Always Outnumbered,'' which featured a coolly graceful performance by Laurence Fishburne as a heroic ex-convict. And Showtime deserves a special nod for rescuing ''Lolita'' from obscurity when it looked as if theatrical distributors were afraid of it. The movie was buoyed by a wonderfully pained performance from Jeremy Irons.
Also of note this year: NBC managed to turn ''Merlin'' into something more than an effects-laden sweeps event, gathering an impressive cast for some lively Arthurian melodrama. And VH1 continued to make a name for itself as the best music channel, largely thanks to its rockumentary series, ''Behind the Music.'' The show, loaded with classic clips and choice interviews, has managed to turn pop phenomenons like John Denver and the Mamas and the Papas into fantastic TV stories.