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Fall '99: "Ally" and "Chicago Hope"

One's a new show that's not really new. One's an old show that's really a new one. But both of them are from David E. Kelley, a man whose imagination is as fertile as the Nile.

And, as anyone who has taken a whiff will tell you, the Nile stinks.

The new show that's not really new is Ally, a half-hour sitcom about a young, Harvard-educated lawyer and her personal travails. If that sounds familiar, it's because Ally is a cleverly re-edited half-hour version of the hour-long Ally McBeal. In a clever business move, Kelley and Fox have decided to fill a half-hour hole in Fox's prime time schedule with two-year-old episodes of Ally McBeal with subplots drained out, leaving a more streamlined comedy in the place of an hour-long comedy-drama hybrid.

What does Kelley get out of hacking up his own series? Money. Not just from Fox, but from the world of syndicated TV. You see, half-hour series make a lot more money in syndication than hour-long series. The ratings are better, because tired people rarely want to sit around after work and watch an hour of the same show. Or so they say -- of course, where I live we're plagued with two hours of Friends and 3rd Rock From the Sun reruns while other syndicated comedies like NewsRadio have drifted into the post-Conan netherworld.

All the rants about putting a glorified rerun on the fall schedule aside, however, I've got to admit that Ally isn't a bad show. That's in part because the first year of Ally McBeal was actually good. Calista Flockhart jokes aside, a slimmed-down Ally really hits the spot, since the chaff of silly subplots is stripped away and we're left with a purer, more direct story.

The show's pacing is also lively, owing partially to the dramatic editing that needed to be done to cut its running time in half. Transitions are made via a fast-forward effect that would be extremely cool if it were being used in a brand-new show; in Ally there's a bit of a letdown because you know it's only there to cover up continuity glitches caused by the editing out of some subplots.

If you've never seen Ally McBeal, it might be worth giving Ally a try. Maybe you can stand David Kelley in smaller doses better than in longer ones. If you have seen the show, well, you've seen Ally before, too. A rerun at half the length is still a rerun.

The other new-but-not David Kelley series is Chicago Hope, a once-promising medical drama that fell off the face of the earth after being bested in its time slot by another new medical series, ER. The first season of Chicago Hope was remarkable -- it was a better show than ER, or at the very least was a dead heat in terms of quality. Led by Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol (now better known as peculiar lawyer John Cage on Ally McBeal), Chicago Hope was a clever hybrid of a medical and legal show, with a solid shot of bizarre behavior tossed in for good measure.

But then David E. Kelley apparently disengaged from Chicago Hope. Perhaps he was sullen about his Picket Fences being tossed off the air by CBS after that show's quality had gone in the crapper. Perhaps he was busy auditioning anorexic actresses for a new show about a young, Harvard-educated lawyer and her personal travails. Whatever the reason, Chicago Hope took a left turn and began heading down a shady road to crudville.

Patinkin bailed, citing a need to spend more time with his family, and was replaced by -- God help us -- the godawful Christine Lahti. MacNicol's character followed, getting shot in the head after he (MacNicol, not his character) pleaded with Kelley to let him out of his contract and jump off the sinking ship.

In the intervening years, the show's new producers took it down bizarre paths with its collection of strange-yet-uninteresting doctors, culminating in Christine Lahti's attempts to become an astronaut and fly on the Space Shuttle. Meanwhile, all the stars of ER made millions, signed huge movie deals, or both.

Hector Elizondo, call your agent.

Fortunately, this spring Kelley rode to the rescue of his spinning-out-of-control medical series. Rather than cancel the show and come up with a new one, CBS worked out a deal where Kelley would hollow out the old Hope (by having Patinkin arrive to fire most of the annoying cast members) and pour in a new mixture of goodness, equal parts old (the return of Patinkin and Fences heartthrob Lauren Holly) and new (Spin City refugee Carla Gugino and feature film refugee Barbara Hershey). And yet, inexplicably, Kelley decided to let Mark Harmon keep his job -- perhaps simply so he could inform us last night that shit does indeed happen.

The result is a show that, while it will never reach the heights of the original Hope, is far more interesting to watch than it was in the intervening years. And while it's been a much bumpier ride for Hope than for ER, these days NBC's shining star is falling perilously close to the quality level of its original nemesis. Granted, Patinkin's not making appearances in every episode, but when he does appear he's as fantastic as he ever was. The new energy in the show has made Aaron Shutt (Adam Arkin) less of a sad-sack whiner, and even chief of staff Philip Watters (Elizondo) appears to have more fire than before.

Say this for David Kelley: the man knows how to create (and re-create) shows, Snoops notwithstanding. While neither Ally nor Chicago Hope is really a new show, they're both better than most of the new shows on this year's fall schedule. In a world where the once-mighty networks are now just scraping by, recycled mediocrity wins out over the brand-new junk any day.


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