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Channing Returns for More 'Practice'

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After a broadcast hiatus to make room for some midseason comedies, CBS' freshman sitcom "Out of Practice" returns on a new night on Wednesday, March 22. While it performed well enough on Mondays to get a full-season pickup, its performance on Wednesday may determine whether it gets a second season.

Henry Winkler and Stockard Channing star as Drs. Stewart and Lydia Barnes, the divorced parents of a clan of doctors (and one therapist), played by Ty Burrell, Paula Marshall and Chris Gorham. Jennifer Tilly also stars as Crystal, Stewart's girlfriend.

Luckily for Channing, the sitcom schedule has allowed her to work elsewhere, including her recurring role as first lady Abbey Bartlet on NBC's "The West Wing" and the occasional play in London.

"I've just finished it," Channing says in a phone interview from her London hotel room. "I just did 10 days of it. It's called 'The Exonerated,' which is a piece created from the transcripts and interviews of six people in our country who were exonerated from being on death row. It was directed by Bob Balaban, and it's been all over America for about three, four years now."

Balaban also directed a TV-movie version of the "The Exonerated" for Court TV, starring Susan Sarandon.

"Same piece," Channing says. "We just opened it in London and launched it. It was well appreciated. I literally finished taping the show on Wednesday night; Thursday night went to the airport, got here Friday and went from the airport to the theater. That's the old saying, 'One thing ends, another begins.' It worked out really well. It was kind of a long shot to do it. I was really pushing it."

Asked it was hard to switch gears from comedy to drama, Channing says, "Well, no. It was probably one of the reasons I did it. I know that Ty Burrell had been rehearsing a play in New York while we were doing our last one. I guess those of us who were from the theater are sick puppies."

Channing is also coping with the constant rewriting that is common to sitcoms.

It's a different experience than she had on "The West Wing," especially during the tenure of creator Aaron Sorkin. He may not always have delivered script pages quickly, but Channing says, "Whatever was written by Aaron was etched in stone. By the time it got to the person who was to say those words, you couldn't change a preposition.

"So, this sort of give and take, for better or worse, is very different from 'The West Wing' experience."

While the fate of "Out of Practice" remains in question at this writing, the fate of "The West Wing" is also etched in stone. The Oval Office drama ends its seventh season this May, also marking the end of the administration of fictional President Jed Bartlet.

"I feel great about 'The West Wing,'" Channing says, "but I think all good things must come to an end. I'm not surprised that it ended when it did, because on the air last year -- which was two years ago this coming summer -- it was pretty evident that we were in the seventh year of the term. There were actual words to that effect. I thought, 'When there's the seventh year, there's the eighth year, and that would be the end of a term.'

"To be honest with you, that's when I realized we couldn't have much more to go."

Interestingly enough, Channing's characters on both "West Wing" and "Out of Practice" are physicians.

"I know," she says. "I finally got to wear a white coat after all these years. But you've never actually seen me touch a patient, which might be just as well.

"I never have a lot of medical terminology. They learned that about the first or second year of 'West Wing.' I'm hopeless at it. They just let me go with other stuff. On take 10, they said, 'This is the end of this. This is clearly not her forte.' I don't see how they do it on 'ER.'"

While Abbey must keep up a brave public face on "The West Wing," Lydia gets to let her hair down, and Channing would like even more of that if the show gets renewed.

"I find her very complicated," she says. "I think of her as someone who both can be silly but also very intelligent. She's a lot of contradictions. She's wound really tight, but she's also massively passionate and impetuous. I think of her as someone who seems to have all the answers, but at this point in her life is really at sea about a lot of things, which is something she's not very comfortable with being.

"I think of her as somebody in transition."

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