What should we call “Ally”? A series spin-on? A semi-clone, perhaps? By any description, this “Ally” without the McBeal signifies the dawn of an new era in broadcast primetime, one that has an eye firmly fixed to off-net sales and vertical integration. Eliminating the risk in selling “Ally McBeal” as an hour series by slicing it in half and serving it up as a strip option, David E. Kelley is showing Fox he can run a full-service chop shop.
With so many network hours hoping to spin some “Ally McBeal” magic with new dramedy offerings like NBC’s “Cold Feet” and “The West Wing” and CBS’s “Now and Again,” it is perhaps the ultimate irony that even “Ally McBeal” exec producer and writer Kelley would see fit to clone his own show. The further irony is that the Oct. 5 and 12 editions of the half-hour “Ally” that were supplied for review (the Sept. 28 premiere wasn’t made available) work surprisingly well in the shrink-wrapped format. They flow smoothly. They make sense. They don’t seem eviscerated in the least.
And boy, talk about a bargain. “Ally” has to make the MTV and Comedy Central original series budgets look positively gargantuan by comparison.
Here is what “Ally” loses in the slice-and-dice translation: its humor. In making the cosmic leap from “Ally McBeal” to “Ally,” the show looks to have shifted its focus to an almost entirely dramatic one. It inspires yet another irony, since “Ally McBeal” just earned Kelley an outstanding comedy series Emmy and is promoted in Fox press materials as a “half-hour comedy version” of the show.
Wrong. “Ally” comes a lot closer to resembling the bittersweet tone of the late, great NBC/Lifetime series “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” than it does the alternately wiggy and introspective sensibilities of the Monday hour from which it is chiseled. From the looks of episodes two and three, at least, much of the charming, broad absurdity that defines the “McBeal” experience winds up in the Ally McBasket, waiting for the next spinoff.
The idea here, according to Fox, is to radically pare a storyline down to its bare essentials while grafting scattered bits of original footage into the mix. In the two reviewed segs, it would thus be editors Thomas R. Moore and Philip Neel who have the most important assignment. They must breathe fresh life into year-old and two-year-old reruns while slicing them in half — no easy task. So far, they look to have met the challenge with genuine vision and aplomb.
“Ally” installments on Oct. 5 and 12 are both gleaned from first-year episodes of “McBeal,” which launches its third season on Oct. 25. The Oct. 5 effort, titled “The Promise,” focuses on the vain efforts of a massively overweight lawyer (Jay Leggett) to summon a romance with Ally (Calista Flockhart) at the expense of his portly fiancee (Rusty Schwimmer). Despite its compressed form, the teleplay showcases Kelley at his poignant best.
Next seg, “100 Tears Away,” is significantly less dynamic but equally consistent stylistically as it depicts a defiant Ally taking on the legal establishment after her mental acuity is called into question.
In its Tuesdays-at-8 timeslot, “Ally” has stiff competition — “Spin City,” “Just Shoot Me,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “JAG” and “Dilbert” — but low overhead. If it can somehow manage to pull through that competitive wringer and inspire something resembling ratings promise, expect the clones of the clones to follow.