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Howard Rosenberg / TELEVISION

Flirting With Genius

David E. Kelley's masterwork comic series, 'Ally McBeal,' opens a new season with two episodes that are smart, funny and, oh, so sexy.

October 25, 1999|Howard Rosenberg

It's one thing to be an indiscriminate human conveyor belt sending beer bottles to prime time, quite another to be a David E. Kelley, whose prolific writing and producing nearly always yield series that elevate television and make it worth watching.

All right, so sue him, his underachieving new "Snoops" on ABC is the glitch. Yet Kelley also has on the air "Chicago Hope" and this year's Emmy winner, "The Practice," both of which regularly deliver quality goods on CBS and ABC, respectively.

It's that screwball Fox series, "Ally McBeal," a remarkable union of tender filmic art and goofiness, that remains Kelley's masterwork, though. Not the half-sized, condensed "Ally" of Tuesday nights, but the full-sized "Ally McBeal" that returns this evening.

The lead-in is "Time of Your Life," the Jennifer Love Hewitt spinoff from "Party of Five" that opens tonight in fairly decent fashion. At age 20, Sarah Merrin has left San Francisco to search for her roots in New York.

The superior action is in Ally's Boston, though.

To be funny is a rare triumph, to be funny and smart equal to walking on the moon. Following a season of slippage, it's the moon again for "Ally McBeal." If you don't agree after watching the new season's first two Kelley-written episodes--tonight's hour turns on Ally having car-wash sex and next week's on her physical attraction to her nemesis, Ling--then get outta here.

So, here is Calista Flockhart as our Beantown lawyer Ally tonight having torrid sex in a car wash with a handsome worker (Jason Gedrick) at some point during the rinse cycle. It's a prologue to her representing a bride-to-be (Tracy Middendorf) whose minister (Ray Walston) refuses to marry her or to open his church to her wedding after learning that she was having a one-woman stag party with someone other than her fiance.

But Kelley is just beginning, for soon Ally is a bridesmaid getting hissed and heckled after her deeply felt act of conscience (don't ask) infuriates the rest of the wedding party and the 300 guests inside the church.

With Billy Dickson directing, it's all quite brilliant, and just a real kick. As are former prosecutor Renee Raddick (Lisa Nicole Carson) and former Judge Whipper Cone (Dyan Cannon) entering private practice together and, in a lusty musicale, requiring male job interviewees to strip to their waists. Just as inspired is the dilemma facing John Cage (Peter MacNicol), one of TV's most original characters. He's at his bizarre best here while trying to relocate his inner Barry White, with the assistance of office snoop Elaine Vassal (Jane Krakowski), so that he can make love with true emotion to Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi).

As always, the series is a pantheon of memorable dialogue, some of which typically comes from Ally, who tells John that more than merely making love, what she did in the car wash was "that vulgar verb." And some coming from Ally's curio of a boss, Richard Fish (Greg Germann), who accuses a judge of not understanding his female client's plight. "I'd like you to walk a mile . . . in her diaphragm."

Not that what's said is always critical, for Kelley manages to have Gedrick's character loom over the entire episode while speaking only five brief sentences.

Although not intended as libido-free zones, both of these initial episodes touch on equal-opportunity sexual fantasies without being gratuitously titillating. A gem of a sexual harassment trial threads next week's hour, with the amply endowed Renee exploiting her chestiness in court, leading to a blowup with her co-counsel, Billy Alan Thomas (Gil Bellows). After she calls him a male chauvinist pig, he angrily likens her to someone "throwing her breasts out like they were two condos she was trying to sublet." The exchange is stunning.

But the episode's signature work, sensitively directed by Mel Damski, involves longtime enemies Ally and the usually snide Ling Woo (Lucy Liu), two heterosexuals who find themselves attracted to each other at the office but initially are too timid and confused to act on their feelings.

First come flirtatious eyes, then a brief spin together on the dance floor in one of the most hauntingly erotic sequences ever filmed for TV. And finally, they consummate their curiosity with a pair of sweet, sensual kisses on the lips that celebrate the gift of sexuality without being cheap or overtly sexual.

Ally has kissed other female colleagues on the lips twice before, but only to shock and scare off men who were bugging her. This episode carries more than a whiff of danger, however, and both women have never looked, um, better.

However short-lived their alliance, Ally and Ling are magic together as a twosome testing the water with their toes. Maybe it's just a straight-guy thing. Maybe it's just art.

* "Ally McBeal" will be shown tonight at 9 on Fox. The network has rated it TV-14-SD (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with special advisories for sex and suggestive dialogue).

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