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Can Matthew Perry save ''Ally McBeal''?

Can Matthew Perry save ”Ally McBeal”? A two-hour special aims to lure viewers back to the fading Fox series

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Matthew Perry, Calista Flockhart, ...

After a five-week vacation, ”Ally McBeal” returns on Monday, April 15, (Fox, 8-10 p.m.) with a little help from a Friend. In the two-hour episode, Matthew Perry guest-stars as a hotshot lawyer applying for a job at Ally’s firm. ”He brings out the competitiveness in Ally, and he also forces her to question her relationship with Victor [Jon Bon Jovi],” says executive producer Bill D’Elia. ”While Victor’s not her usual type, Matthew’s character reminds her of the guys she’s dated in the past.”

With luck, Perry will summon the vitalizing spirit of Ally ex Robert Downey Jr. (”Ally”’s ratings have drooped since the troubled star’s departure last season; the show regularly lags behind CBS’ ”Everybody Loves Raymond” and NBC’s ”Third Watch.”) But with a sixth season at stake, ”McBeal” producers are pulling out the all-star stops to boost ratings leading into May sweeps. In addition to Perry, ”Sleepy Hollow” star Christina Ricci begins a multiple-episode arc as a rival lawyer; and next week, Heather Locklear and ”The Practice” star Lara Flynn Boyle will make cameos. On April 29, ”Soul Food”’s Vanessa Williams guests.

But the jury’s still out on whether a cavalcade of celebrities will be enough to save Boston’s most neurotic lawyer. ”I never give up hope that [creator] David E. Kelley can pull another rabbit, or Robert, out of his hat,” says Bill Carroll, media analyst for Katz Television Group. ”There’s nothing hotter than ‘Friends’ right now, and people will tune in to see if Perry plays Chandler or someone different. Still, there’s only so many times you can expect an audience to come back.”

That said, D’Elia thinks straying fans who tune in Monday night will be hooked for keeps. ”Measuring up to the yardstick of Robert was tough, but this season is as good as the show’s ever been,” he says. And if worse comes to worse, maybe Joey and Rachel will need a good out-of-state lawyer.