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September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

ABC, 9-10 PM Debuts Sept. 26

Both shows follow a trio of babe-acious female private detectives busting bad guys in Los Angeles. Both feature plenty of gunplay, car chases, and tight, clingy clothing. And neither is likely to be high on Emmy’s shortlist this season.

So how do you tell the difference between ABC’s new crime series Snoops and Pamela Anderson Lee’s syndicated cops-and-jiggles drama, V.I.P.? ”All the breasts on our show are real,” answers Paula Marshall (Cupid), who, along with Gina Gershon (Bound, Showgirls) and Paula Jai Parker (Why Do Fools Fall in Love), stars as one of Snoops‘ sexpot shamuses.

An even bigger difference: The ABC show is created and exec-produced by none other than David E. Kelley, the frighteningly prolific brainiac behind Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Chicago Hope. Shot alongside Kelley’s other shows at his 22-acre film complex south of Los Angeles — ”Camp David,” Gershon calls it — it’s the third installment in Kelley’s four-series, five-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox. But even Kelley admits Snoops isn’t a typical David E. Kelley production.

”It’s more like an escapist romp,” he says. ”It doesn’t have the eccentricities of the other shows, but that’s by design. I can’t write three shows at the same time, so I knew from the outset that I’d have to be very careful not to write characters that could only exist in my head. I think of it as a show I gave birth to but then put up for adoption.”

There’s been some difficulty finding a foster parent, however. At first, producer Rob Thomas was picked to oversee the show, but he walked away citing creative differences. ”My vision for the show was more plot-driven, while Rob saw it as more character- and dialogue-driven,” explains Kelley. Exactly who’s replaced Thomas is difficult to say. Is it Snoops‘ coexecutive producer Allan Arkush (who’s also directing some episodes)? Is it coexecutive producer Alice West (who handles the day-to-day production of the show)? Snoops writers Hart Hanson and Molly Newman?

”I honestly don’t know,” says Marshall, who worked with Thomas back when he was exec-producing Cupid. ”One of the reasons I was so upset when Rob left was because I knew he was going to be on the set every day, listening, watching, giving input. I like to have one person on the set I know is in charge. But now I don’t know who the boss is. I don’t really talk to David — he doesn’t hang out on the set. I should probably just pick up the phone and call him.”

She may want to hold off on that call for a while. ”If an actor needs to know who’s in charge to do their scenes, then that makes me suspicious of that actor’s craft,” Kelley responds coolly. And if his new series seems a tad untethered at the moment, he says that’s by design as well. ”Every show discovers itself as it goes along,” he adds. ”The biggest mistake is to get married to a show before it gets going.”

In fact, Snoops has already undergone several major make-overs. Originally, its lead private detective was written for a male, but then Kelley coaxed Gershon in to audition for a different role and a lightbulb blinked on over his head. He rejiggered the pilot with Gershon as the, er, titular head of the agency. ”I really wasn’t sure I wanted to do a TV series,” she says. ”But Kelley shot down all of my arguments against it. I told him the character was too straight for me. He promised to loosen her up. I told him I wanted to play a lot of different parts, that I’d get sick of playing the same character every week. He said, ‘Great, your character can go on assignments as different types.’ I said I wanted to do movies. He said we could work it out. He really made me one of those offers you can’t refuse.”

The gender switcheroo took Marshall by surprise — “I had it in my mind that I’d be acting against a man and then suddenly it was this three-woman thing” — but even she’s come around. “Someone at ABC told me that the network hated The Practice at first,” she says. “I think David probably takes a little time to find the show that he’s looking for. I think he likes to explore a bit. I mean, the guy is a genius.”

Hmm. Sounds like she knows who the boss is after all. — BENJAMIN SVETKEY

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