TV Show
October 01, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

”This should be declared a mistrial right now!”

Dylan McDermott’s Bobby Donnell yelled this courtroom demand in the season premiere of writer-producer David E. Kelley’s The Practice.

Bobby — sporting a becoming new long-sideburned Elvis cut this year — was bellowing for maximum defense-attorney effect in a bug-juicy case involving a dentist who gets his sexual jollies by watching women crush insects with their feet. The doc is accused of murdering one crusher whose own fetish is having her teeth cleaned. (These complementary weirdos found each other on the Internet, and the fact that the dentist is played by Henry ”the Fonz” Winkler in full lower-lip-protruding, earnest mode is only icing on the carapace.)

But I’ll bet not a few viewers were registering the exact same strenuous objection Bobby did when they watched the recent Emmy Awards, during which the industry pretty much crowned Kelley the King of Television, awarding him with unprecedented dual trophies: The Practice as best drama and his Ally McBeal as best comedy. A mistrial should have been called on the Emmys not only for the miscarriage of justice The Sopranos suffered, but also for the award show’s periodic eruptions of prejudicial Kelley envy, as when winning Frasier writer Jay Kogen yammered variations on the by-now-unbearable jokes about Kelley’s indefatigable work habits (he writes in longhand, on yellow legal pads!) and his marriage (ooh, the lucky dog goes home every night to Michelle Pfeiffer!).

This season King Kelley is presiding over a motley realm that includes The Practice; the third season of Ally McBeal; the half-hour version of the same show, called simply Ally, featuring McBeal McNuggets fortified with previously unseen footage; the female-private-eye show Snoops; and a repopulated Chicago Hope. I noted in last week’s What to Watch section Hope’s instant energy boost courtesy of Mandy Patinkin as well as by its suddenly jumbo-haired new costars, Barbara Hershey and Lauren Holly. Snoops is the opposite of the re-Patinkinized Hope: It’s an energy sapper. How could Kelley take such an enjoyably trashy concept — babe investigators (Gina Gershon, Cupid‘s Paula Marshall, and Paula Jai Parker) with gadgets like a ”nipple cam” (a surveillance camera in a brassiere) — and manage to make the results so boring?

These poor women slog through detective plots that were predictable when Mannix and Cannon were on 25 years ago. Rather than sit through the sniggering byplay that passes for dialogue, you’d do better to get your jiggle exploitation from the syndicated show that features the same concept, Pamela Anderson Lee’s bosom-cam extravaganza, V.I.P. With Snoops, all you get is Kanned Korn Kelley.

But back to Kelley’s kwality — I mean, quality — show. The Practice remains engrossing because it focuses on the theme that has most interested its creator since he quit being a lawyer to begin writing L.A. Law episodes: ethics. Specifically, who’s got ’em, and who needs ’em? Kelley makes his diverse batch of Boston ambulance chasers engage in endless, provocative debates about where one draws the line between idealism and suckersville, pragmatism and potential disbarment.

In this season’s second episode, he’s off to a good start, with Lara Flynn Boyle’s ADA Helen Gamble gambling that a judge will let her fudge the probable-cause law to justify a cop’s search of a car that proves to contain a dead body. The greatest talent Kelley possesses is his ability to see both sides of every argument; he forces you to root for each side at different times in any given case. For this alone, he deserves fewer jokes about his wife and his legal pads.

The new season of Ally McBeal doesn’t commence until Oct. 25, but the semi-demi-mini-Ally is up and running. Pluses: better theme song (harmonica wheezing instead of Vonda Shepard crooning) and, well, half the cuteness of a four-course McBeal meal. Minuses: All the small annoying mannerisms of the show — its cornball slapstick, its meaningless-phrase dialogue tics (”Bygones!” ”Snappish!”), are magnified in these 22 1/2-minutes-plus-commercials versions. The two-act Allys take one subplot from an earlier episode and make it a whole show. Remember when Calista Flockhart’s Ally tripped that woman in the supermarket while fighting for a can of Pringles and was sued? That’s a whole Ally episode right there.

Although her show is now at regular sitcom length, Ally herself seems curiously less funny and more poignant: Stripped of many ancillary characters, this woman — lovelorn, moody, dithering — seems more isolated, even pitiable. Having watched three of these reedited versions of Ally, I’m thinking that the King should have instead worked Ally into his newest show and given her a fresh social life. Ally McSnoop: Coulda been great.
The Practice: A-
Snoops: D
Chicago Hope: B-
Ally: C+

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