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"Ally McBeal" on FOX.

By D. G. Cameron

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Part of the fun of TV is getting into one show and watching it religiously. For some of us, nothing beats a witty drama with plots that continue from week to week. The best drama of this season, improbably showing on the FOX network, is "Ally McBeal," which chronicles the life of its title character Ally (Calista Flockhart), a young, single attorney trying to keep her professional and emotional sanity intact. Challenging her quest is her ex-boyfriend Billy, once a soul mate and now married to someone else--a fellow attorney at her new firm. Also at the firm, Ally must deal with slimeball partner Richard Fishman and crazy partner John "The Biscuit" Cage. It's office politics and torturous love all the way.

The creative force behind "Picket Fences," "Chicago Hope," "The Practice" and now "Ally McBeal" is television guru David E. Kelley. Kelley cut his teeth writing for Steve Bochco's early hit "L.A. Law." While Bochco grew to greater fame with the sexy, violent shows "N.Y.P.D. Blue" and "Murder One," Kelley created his own baby, the great and greatly underrated "Picket Fences." That show focused on the Brock family: dad, the town sheriff; mom, the town doctor, and their three kids. It gave Kelley the opportunity to write about his favorite issues: thorny legal and medical scenarios. The Emmy Award-winning show tackled topics like euthanasia, criminal insanity and priests with shoe fetishes.

"Ally McBeal" is now inspiring a cult following, and for good reason. The writing is top notch, and the situations Ally gets herself into are both funny and thoughtful. She gets busted by the cops for shoplifting spermicide by accident. She decides to date a rabbi and another attorney who can't keep salad dressing off his face.

Interestingly, "Ally McBeal" breaks conventions of typical law shows by interspersing computer-animated snippets of action throughout each episode. Critics have compared these "imaginary" sequences to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But what the special effects illustrate aren't really Ally's fantasies; they are her internal emotions made visual. A garbage trunk dumping Ally into its bowels marks her romantic jilting by a potential client; slime covers her face when she perpetrates a sleazy legal tactic. It has the fun, zappy feel of one of FOX's former cult hits, "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," and the more you see of it, the better it works. Perhaps it's because television drama so seldom ventures away from straight-ahead realism or perhaps because the effects add humor to tense situations. Either way, it's a refreshing use of television's narrative flexibility.

If you do get into "Ally McBeal," beware: David Kelley has a reputation for turning his shows over to other writers who inevitably ruin them. (I cried when this happened to "Picket Fences.") Better enjoy "Ally" while she lasts.


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