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Can 'Ally' Bring New Business to 'Practice'?

Television: Serious cousin of hit comedy, also from writer-producer David E. Kelley, hopes to get a boost from crossover story.

April 25, 1998|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David E. Kelley wakes up every day to write and produce two television series set in Boston law firms.

One is a goofy, neurotic comedy that features a love-starved heroine wearing some of the shortest skirts ever made, remote-controlled toilet flushers and a senior partner who lusts after Janet Reno. The other is a gritty, often dour drama that features tough moral questions about the death penalty, race and religion.

One wins awards and gets its star plastered on magazine covers all over the country. The other has struggled just to get people to know it exists.

One is Fox's "Ally McBeal," the hottest new show of this season. The other is "The Practice," now in its third time period after premiering on ABC in March 1997.

And yes, the stars of "The Practice" admit--with a sly grin or chuckle to cover the indecorousness of the sentiment--they do occasionally feel like Kelley's ugly stepchild compared with the beautiful "Ally."

"Yeah, definitely, you sometimes feel that," said Dylan McDermott, the centerpiece of "The Practice." "But that's a comedy and, ultimately, that's what people want. They want to laugh. The want to have a good time. 'The Practice' is not always fun to watch, and I think it will be a lot harder to get a huge audience because of that."

"I have been the underdog all my life," said Camryn Manheim, who plays one of the attorneys, Ellenor Frutt. "I got beat up in the sixth grade because we had a pretend poll and I was the only one who voted for McGovern against Nixon. But I have no hard feelings toward 'Ally McBeal.' We reap some of the benefits of it being such a sensational hit."

Jeffrey Kramer, president of Kelley's production company and the co-executive producer of both shows, conceded that there is a bit of sibling rivalry between the two series, but insisted that "The Practice" is just as vital to Kelley and the company as its more ballyhooed rival.

"They are both our children and I know that David really believes in this show and puts everything he has into it," Kramer said. "It is dispiriting for 'The Practice,' I think, to see the 'Ally' cast get Golden Globes and SAG [Screen Actors Guild] nominations and they don't, because certainly 'The Practice' has one of the best ensembles on television. But I think our time is coming. Traditionally it takes some time for hour shows to hit their peak. 'Ally' is simply a phenomenon."

Jamie Tarses, president of ABC Entertainment, noted that "Ally McBeal" has received such an extraordinary amount of attention that anyone slaving away on the outside is "bound to feel that they aren't the belle of the ball. But we are such strong supporters of 'The Practice,' I love this show so much, that we are always looking for ways to give it a shot in the arm."

The latest injection comes Monday in an unprecedented inter-network crossover designed to capitalize on "Ally McBeal's" popularity. Kelley has written a story involving a law case that will begin on "Ally" on Fox at 9 p.m. and conclude at 10 p.m. on "The Practice" on ABC. Actors from both series will be involved in the case and will appear in each other's shows.

The hope is that viewers who love Calista Flockhart as Ally will follow her to "The Practice" in order to see the conclusion, then will be so impressed that they will return to "The Practice" in the future.

Well, that's the hope of Kelley and ABC executives, anyway. Many Fox affiliates, on the other hand, were angered when they heard about the stunt because it is likely to hurt the ratings of their 10 p.m. newscasts that follow "Ally McBeal." But after some grumbling and threats of refusing to air the episode, they eventually agreed to grin and bear it in order to keep Kelley happy.

"Ally McBeal" fans will encounter a different aspect of the legal world on "The Practice"--grittier, tougher, more ambiguous. "It's topical and deals with real life," said Kelli Williams, who plays another of the lawyers in the firm, Lindsay Dole. "Most of television is about lack of thought. It's just for you to sit there and maybe laugh a little, which has its merit too. But I love when a show actually makes you think about something, gets you to strike up a conversation with a friend, and I think it's important that at least a few things on television do that."

And while ABC's Tarses says she doesn't think the show is too dark, there has been a concerted effort this season, if not to lighten the show exactly, then at least to broaden its appeal with a dose of the personal--"to sex it up," as McDermott says.

Lara Flynn Boyle was added to the cast to play McDermott's girlfriend, and that relationship turned into a messy love triangle when Williams' character revealed that she too was in love with him.

But, in truth, the show's long-term viability may simply come down to time slot.

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