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‘Ally’ Returns to All That Attention

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The distinctive wail of a lone bagpipe filled the air as its player, John “The Biscuit” Cage, paced in front of a group of uncertain mourners.

Cage’s beloved pet frog had croaked--not the noisy kind, but the fatal kind. Cage, the eccentric partner of the Cage/Fish & Associates law firm, was officiating over a memorial service for his departed companion, who met his fate when the toilet in which he was swimming accidentally got flushed.

For Cage (Peter MacNichol), it couldn’t have been sadder. But for the other attendees of the service--particularly the wide-eyed attorney Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart)--it couldn’t have been funnier. Even at Cage/Fish, where unisex bathrooms, face bras and talk about the sexual fascination of wattles is an everyday occurrence, a frog funeral was really over the top.

Another weird and wacky season is underway on “Ally McBeal,” Fox’s quirky comedy about a neurotic lawyer and her colleagues that became the most talked-about new show of last season--a pop culture touchstone that ignited debates over its depiction of professional women while plucking Flockhart from relative obscurity to magazine cover fixture and future power broker (see article above).

“Ally,” which has spawned a hit soundtrack and an upcoming book, has also earned an Emmy nomination as outstanding comedy series, where it will compete Sunday night against veterans such as “Frasier” and “Seinfeld.” The series and Flockhart already won Golden Globes this year for best comedy series and best comedy actress. Industry insiders have referred to new shows such as WB’s “Felicity” as clones of “Ally.” A commercial for CBS’ “The Brian Benben Show,” Ally’s new rival on Monday night, features the male star in an Ally-type skirt.

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While obviously pleased with the show’s popularity, creator and executive producer David E. Kelley is still scratching his head about the furor over the show and the arguments and discussions it has sparked, as are Flockhart and the other cast members. Much of the discussions centered on Ally’s neurotic demeanor, her waif-like figure, the notoriously short skirts, her problems with men and her obsession with her ex-boyfriend/co-worker, and her unconventional manner in the courtroom.

Said Flockhart: “People oftentimes were putting me on the defensive, and I became very protective and defensive of Ally. I felt that I had to defend her and her choices, all the time saying, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, this is an exaggerated character for the purpose of entertainment.’ The thing that interested me most was why ‘Ally McBeal’ was being used by people as a vehicle to talk about feminism.”

Added Kelley of the controversy: “We never endeavored to create this role model for feminism or prototype for modern women. It’s kind of amusing to see scholars taking our show a lot more seriously than we take it.”

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Greg Germann, who plays the shamelessly politically incorrect Fish, said: “I always thought of our show as just an entertaining romantic comedy. For people to see more into it is odd.”

The quirky and offbeat nature of “Ally” will largely remain the same this season, but Kelley disclosed a few changes. Ally will not be as consumed by her obsession with former boyfriend and current colleague Billy (Gil Bellows)--"That will be part of her history, but not part of the conflicts and hurdles in front of her now,” Kelley said. More importantly, a new lawyer named Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi) will join the firm and disrupt the harmony of the lawyers who not only like to work together, but socialize together at the end of the day.

There will be more plot lines revolving around supporting characters, particularly Billy and his wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith). Thorne-Smith, who was formerly part of another television pop culture phenomena, “Melrose Place,” said she is pleased she’ll have more comic variety this season: “Last year, it was like Billy and Georgia were the sane eyes looking at all of this insanity. We were like the kids looking through the fence wanting to throw the ball around. I really envied that. Now Gil and I will get to play more.”

Kelley said he does not feel more pressured or anxious by the attention or success of “Ally,” nor is he boosting the writing staffs of “Ally” or his other legal series, ABC’s “The Practice,” in order to give himself a break. On the contrary. As he did last season, Kelley will again take on the daunting task of writing all of the episodes of “Ally” and “The Practice,” which will amount to about 50 hours of television.

“It’s really not too bad handling both,” he said. “It’s a good rhythm for me to go back and forth between the two shows.” He said it takes him between three and four days to write a script for an episode.

The attention has become a double-edged sword for Kelley. While “Ally” cast members--particularly Flockhart--have been besieged by requests for interviews, “The Practice” is still struggling to gain a higher public profile. “The very publicity we’ve been begging for on ‘The Practice’ we have to turn down on ‘Ally,’ ” he said.

“The Practice” stars Dylan McDermott as the head of a small and often dysfunctional Boston law firm that finds itself at times bending the rules to defend its unsavory clients. ABC, which last fall scheduled the drama at 10 p.m. Saturdays--much to the chagrin of Kelley--has moved it this season to the more prestigious--but risky--slot of 10 p.m. Sundays.

The imbalance of attention between “Ally” and “The Practice” is the main reason why Kelley is crossing his fingers that “The Practice” wins for outstanding drama series at Sunday’s Emmy Awards.

“It would be really great for ‘The Practice,’ ” Kelley said. “Winning an Emmy wouldn’t make a difference that much for the future of ‘Ally,’ but it really would have some effect with ‘The Practice.’ People would figure they had missed something and check it out.”

An Emmy win for “The Practice” could put Kelley in the record books if “Ally” also wins for outstanding comedy series. A single producer has never won in both series categories in the same year.

But Kelley, who is already considered one of television’s most successful and powerful producers, said he is doing his best to remain philosophical and level-headed about the possibility.

“I was flattered by the nominations,” said Kelley, who won back-to-back Emmys in 1993 and 1994 for “Picket Fences.” “The day they came out, everyone around here was walking on air. But that high gets punctured by the need to produce the next episode. The work is the work, and that kind of high doesn’t help you on the playing field.”

As for the awards ceremony itself, Kelley smiled slyly and said, “I would like to be in Hawaii on that day, because when you’re out of this town, you realize how insignificant awards shows are in the scheme of things. You feel silly, actually, for getting caught up in the competition of it all.

“But,” he added, “you’re not going to leave town, because you’re nominated for an Emmy, and once you stay here, you get all caught up. And when you walk inside, you’re nervous and stressed, and at the end of the day, you want to win just like everyone else.”

His bottom line? Another smile crept over Kelley’s face. “Yes, winning two would be nice.”

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* “Ally McBeal” begins its new season Monday at 9 p.m. on Fox (Channel 11). “The Practice” starts its season Sept. 27 at 10 p.m. on ABC (Channel 7).


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