By Joe Queenan

Now that every other critic in America has had something to say about Ally McBeal, the time has come for me to weigh in with my opinion.

Because of my inappropriate demographic profile, I didn't start watching Ally McBeal every Monday night until football season ended. But since that time, I have rarely missed an episode. Though I, like many viewers both male and female, find the character played by Calista Flockhart to be a tad annoying, the program definitely has a hypnotic effect. This is probably because it is the best-written show on TV.

Television has had lots of quirky shows in recent years, but Ally is a quirky show with a brain. When writer David E. Kelley introduces a far-fetched plot -- say, Ally defending a woman who wants to be artificially inseminated by a man doing life in prison -- the story actually goes somewhere. The same thing happened when Ally was asked to deliver the eulogy for a professor with whom she had had an affair in law school. Ally's typically airheaded speech was both funny and touching. Lots of shows can be funny, and a few shows can be touching. Only Ally McBeal consistently is both.

The one thing I don't buy about Ally's breakout success is that people are watching it because Ally herself is a postfeminist role model. Ally McBeal, stripped to its essentials, is a program about a beautiful, talented young woman who has an interesting job but can't quite get her personal life together. Yet The Naked Truth, Suddenly Susan and Caroline in the City all focus on beautiful, talented young women with interesting jobs who can't quite get their personal lives together. And nobody's talking about them.

Besides, I don't think people watch TV shows because they identify with the characters. Do Americans watch The X-Files because they identify with an FBI agent who believes in vampires, succubi and, for lack of a better term, Martians? No, they watch it because the show is fantastically entertaining. Do Americans watch Seinfeld, TV's most popular show, because they identify with a quartet of whining, immature, self-centered baby boomers from Manhattan? I don't think so. I think they watch the show because it's hilarious.

Ally McBeal has become must-see TV because it's never obvious, never predictable. Next fall, the new season's schedule will be bursting at the seams with Ally rip-offs, and they will be obvious and predictable, just like those Friends clones that keep coming like the last wave from Krakatoa. Recently, the networks have introduced such DOA offerings as That's Life and House Rules, scant weeks after CBS brought us The Closer. The Closer airs at 9 P.M./ET on Mondays -- the same time as Ally.

And that's the main reason I'm going to keep watching Ally McBeal. It's clever, intelligent, fascinating, funny. It's everything The Closer isn't