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'Grey's' spinoff has 'McBeal' feel

Kate Walsh's Addison moves from Seattle to LA. Kate Walsh's Addison moves from Seattle to LA. (RICHARD CARTWRIGHT/ABC)

It was a gamble, pulling Kate Walsh out of "Grey's Anatomy" and dropping her into a series of her own. And, creatively speaking, the move has not paid off, big-time. "Private Practice," which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 5, is just plain McLousy, from its stock cast of whiny healers down to the hokey, gimmicky medical cases of the week. The ABC show is a waste - of Walsh's appeal as a singular heroine, of costar Tim Daly's charm, and of our precious time.

What's most peculiar about "Private Practice" is its mimicry of "Ally McBeal," the late 1990s show that created a unique, fleetingly successful portrait of a woman on the edge of sanity. Shonda Rhimes, creator of "Private Practice" and "Grey's," floods the "Private Practice" engine with McBealisms, most notably early tonight, when Walsh's Addison dances like Ally through her new apartment in a towel. As the cutesy sexual tension invades Addison's workplace, and the tone lurches between comedy and drama, the spirit of David E. Kelley is in the air.

The "Private Practice" scenario is much as it looked last season on "Grey's Anatomy," when Addison visited the wellness clinic in Santa Monica in a special two-hour episode. (The only change: the recasting of Addison's friend Naomi from Merrin Dungey to a more volcanic Audra McDonald.) Addison tells Dr. Webber in Seattle, "I want to start over," and soon she's gonna make it after all in LA. It will be interesting to see if she references any of her Seattle people later in the season; tonight, though, she's The Lady From Nowhere.

Addison's new colleagues are not preoccupied with the rigors of a busy hospital, this being a cushy clinic in LA. They can spend an entire 9-5 day with one patient. And so they have time to be even less professional than the "Grey's" crew. Naomi and her ex-husband, Sam (Taye Diggs), shamelessly draw the office into their post-split acrimony. Daly's Pete vainly assumes Addison has moved to LA to be near him, since they shared a kiss last season. Amy Brenneman's Violet is an obsessive who can't let go of a married man. And Cooper (Paul Adelstein) is the resident sexaholic. I can't say I'm interested in knowing more about any of them or their textbook midlife issues. They're older than the "Grey's" interns, but certainly not wiser.

Moving between drama and comedy is always challenging for a show, and only a few - "Scrubs," "Rescue Me," "Grey's" - manage it naturally. The transitions need to be made both confidently and invisibly. "Private Practice," on the other hand, toggles uncomfortably between quirky lightness and teary cliches. One of tonight's cases involves a pregnant teen and her angry father. Naturally, Pops will learn a lesson when his daughter has heart failure during labor. Meanwhile, the action repeatedly jumps to another case that begins lightly, as Brenneman's psychiatrist deals with a woman obsessively counting floor tiles in a store. Watching the tonal shifts is like witnessing some kind of electronic split-personality disorder.

The worst thing about "Private Practice" is that it officially marks the loss of the Addison we knew and liked. During Walsh's time on "Grey's," she often made Addison more sympathetic and human than she was written, and for a long time she was immune to that show's sometimes cloying narcissism. But now she's just another pert, self-involved heroine - she even looks slightly different on "Private Practice," almost like Ellen Pompeo in certain shots.

Perhaps "Private Practice" will survive on the loyalty and generosity of "Grey's Anatomy" fans, perhaps it will get better, although the potential for improvement isn't clear. If the show fails, though, and ABC's misguided effort to further milk the "Grey's" cash cow dries up, Walsh can always return to "Grey's" during some sweeps month and cause a romantic kerfuffle. Nothing says welcome back more than a good, old-fashioned kerfuffle.

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Private Practice

Starring: Kate Walsh, Tim Daly, Taye Diggs, Amy Brenneman, Audra McDonald, Paul Adelstein

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, 9-10

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