Premieres of ”Ally McBeal” and ”Boston Public” shake up viewers
So, what’d you think of Monday night’s David E. Kelley double header — the season premiere of ”Ally McBeal” preceded by the series debut of ”Boston Public”? Writer/ creator Kelley’s decision to cast actor/ ex con Robert Downey Jr., in 8 episodes of ”Ally” was a smart one. I had given up on that show — too ridiculously cartoonish — but the chance to see a talented feature film guy like Downey on the small screen had me front and center, and I’ll bet some other disaffected ”Ally” watchers tuned in for the same reason.
The result? Downey himself was terrific; he was obliged to rattle off a complicated Kelley speech articulating his character’s philosophy, and did it with beguiling aplomb; his warmth managed to thaw out Calista Flockhart’s increasingly frigid performance style, and I can imagine some convincing romantic scenes between their two characters. Unfortunately, they don’t occur in the next two episodes, which I’ve also seen. Those shows are the ”McBeal” business as usual, which is to say, chockablock with goofiness, including a transsexual subplot that ought to spark a protest from slandered transsexuals everywhere. And please note that Lisa Nicole Carson’s role has pretty much been reduced to singing oldies alongside Vonda Shepard, since the show doesn’t seem to have room to do anything with her character anymore.
Also crowded are the hallways of Kelley’s newest show, ”Boston Public,” set in an inner city high school where they average 29 students per class. The premiere was a Kelley klassic, full of absurd exaggerations such as a teacher who shoots off a gun in his class to get the sullen youths’ attention. Chi McBride, freed from the indenture of 1998’s ”The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” proves himself a strong dramatic lead as the school’s harried principal, even if he, too, has one unbelievable scene courtesy of Kelley: He slams a student against a wall and dares him to punch him back. I gather we’re supposed to think this sort of thing goes on all the time in public schools these days, but I’m pretty sure abuse by teachers would get noticed by the media pretty quickly and make nationwide news, don’t you?
”Boston Public” is better in its quieter moments, when we see the struggles of teachers to overcome the deadening mental effects on kids of too little parental supervision and a popular culture that tells young people it’s hip to be tough, not intellectual. Heaven knows I don’t look to Kelley’s work for documentary truths, but when he’s in top form — as he has been in, say, the first season of ”Picket Fences” and in occasional runs of episodes of ”The Practice” — Kelley is TV’s greatest debate student: He comes up with provocative proposals and then has two characters make convincing arguments, pro and con.
With Downey, Kelley has found a great vessel for his debate team tactics; let’s hope the writer has the sense and generosity to let the actor deliver more lively, funny speeches — and soon, or our impatience with ”Ally McBeal”’s nattering foolishness will exhaust our willingness to wait for Downey to reappear on screen.