The prolific David E. Kelley strikes again with this deceptively clever piece of comedic drama that joins “The X-Files” and “Party of Five” in upping Fox’s intellectual profile. Offbeat, engaging and smartly written — and with a can’t-miss lead in Broadway actress Calista Flockhart — “Ally McBeal” should score good word-of-mouth and do decent business as a female alternative to “Monday Night Football.” Irresistible premise is kind of “thirtysomething” meets “Dream On,” with a twist of “L.A. Law” tossed in. Only the talented Kelley (as exec producer and writer of every episode) could make insufferable yuppies this much fun.
But none of it would work without the right personality in the center, and Flockhart is all that and more. At once sexy, funny, aloof and vulnerable, she burns up the screen as Ally McBeal, a young lawyer who has it all together at work and all apart outside the office.
Ally gets herself hired at a Boston law firm headed by her oily old law school nemesis Richard (Greg Germann) and populated by her on-again, off-again boyfriend Billy (Gil Bellows). Billy, for whom Ally still has the hots, is now married to the gorgeous Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith of “Melrose Place”).
To peer into Ally’s heart and soul, Kelley uses the effective device of fantasy. At various times, Ally imagines herself with huge breasts, having sex in a coffee cup, receiving arrows in the heart and … well, that’s enough to tease the idea. Suffice it to say the resulting visuals are entirely appropriate to the situation and perfectly zany.
Flockhart is expert at communicating Ally’s quiet panic and awkwardness in dealing with the hunky Billy and the suspicious Georgia (Georgia: “I hate you.” Ally: “Yes, I can understand that.”) Thorne-Smith, Bellows and Germann lend terrific support, striking just the right notes to help Flockhart soar.
Kelley strikes the difficult balance between humor and insight with his usual sure hand, stopping just short of the sort of satire that would strain plausibility. James Frawley does an exceptional directing job in the pilot that nicely matches “Ally McBeal’s” eccentric style.
It remains to be seen if Kelley can maintain the off-kilter energy of the pilot. Moreover, the lessons of “thirtysomething” remind us that today’s sympathetic young adult can be tomorrow’s grating and avaricious jerk. Yet it’s difficult to envision that happening to Flockhart and company as long as Kelley is around to smooth over their rough edges.
“Ally McBeal” is the rare example of a broadcast network premiering a series that feels fresh and different, if occasionally contrived. As such, it deserves to live longer than the standard few weeks. Tech credits are swell.