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The ups and Downey of ''Ally McBeal''

Calista Flochart and Robert Downey, Jr.’s chemistry may save the slumping show

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A rosy-cheeked caroling crew is lip-synching ”Auld Lang Syne” as bundled-up Bostonians carrying holiday gifts brave frosty winter winds for the camera. Though we’re in Los Angeles on a 60-degree early October afternoon, it’s decidedly December on the set of Ally McBeal. Red bows dot streetlamps, a perfectly rotund Santa Claus waves a Salvation Army bell, and here comes Calista Flockhart, filming a scene in which Ally huffs her way right by the festivities — only to whip around and angrily barrel right into the choir.

A few minutes later, the camera follows as she bah-hum-bugs down the tinsel-tinged street and nearly collides with a pedestrian. She shuffles right, then left, then looks up at the human roadblock. Hey, whaddaya know! It’s Robert Downey Jr., looking rather dapper as the new kid in town: sharp-suited, whip-smart attorney Larry Paul.

”Larry!” exclaims our flummoxed heroine on cue, hitting him across the arm. ”I was just on my way to see you.”
”I was on my way to see you,” volleys back Downey.
”You were?”
”They say it’s a good sign when a couple can meet halfway.” Pause. ”Are we a good couple?” she asks, oozing classic Ally doe-eyed hope and curled-lip heaviness.

And cut! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we submit to you that Ms. McBeal has just posed the most scintillating, fascinating, befuddling, eye-popping question of the new television season.

But for those of you who’ve been sequestered of late, let us review: Already famous for its off-kilter plot devices (a nose whistle here, a dancing baby there) and its talented press magnet of a star, Fox’s provocative lawyer dramedy practically jolted the mochaccino right out of Hollywood’s hands with the Aug. 10 news that Mr. Downey had signed up to play Ally’s love interest for at least eight episodes. Sure, big-deal movie stars have graced the small screen before: Bruce Willis popped up on Friends last season; Sally Field is taking a six-episode turn on ER starting this month. But never before has someone so undeniably controversial and cool — you might know him as Perhaps the Greatest Film Actor of His Generation or Prisoner #P50522 — taken to the tube like this. Yes, the verdict is in: Christmas has indeed arrived a few months early for Ally McBeal.

In full-on pensive mode at a quaint brentwood restaurant, Calista Flockhart pauses a lengthy 22 seconds while contemplating season 4 of her series. (And you thought Ally was an introspective gal.) ”So many things about the show have changed,” she finally begins, adjusting her Krispy Kreme baseball hat. ”We’ve lost two actors, we’ve gotten another one that’s semipermanent at the moment, and new producers. On the one hand, it’s difficult to break the ecosystem when it’s very delicate. And when people leave, it can be very disruptive. But on the other hand, change is inevitable… and always turns out to be a good thing.”