Close quarters in court: Call it 'Ally McPractice'

Producer David E. Kelley continues to thumb his nose at those who think Calista Flockhart, star of his Fox hit "Ally McBeal," is looking a mite bony.

For months now, he's been letting wardrobe dress her in teeny-tiny tops that do nothing to allay anyone's fears about the actress' health. On Monday night's show, he acknowledged the controversy more openly, in a scene in which Lara Flynn Boyle, who plays Helen Gamble on ABC's "The Practice" (Kelley's other Boston-based lawyer show), ran into Ally in the courthouse elevator.

They exchanged a long look and Boyle - no heavyweight herself - told Ally: "I was just admiring your outfit. Maybe you could eat a cookie."

"Maybe we could share," replied our wispy heroine.

Kelley's been salting "The Practice" with "Ally McBeal" references all season (Sunday night, in a litany of the women Bobby Donnell's kissed, someone mentioned "the whiny one in the short skirt"), but there's been less cross-promotion on the Fox show, at least until this Monday, when Ally entered her apartment to find the infamous head-in-the-bag episode of "The Practice" playing on her TV set.

Until now, the trade imbalance in inside jokes may have been in deference to Fox affiliates, some of whom were mightily displeased with last season's crossover episodes, since "The Practice" competes with many Fox stations' 10 p.m. newscasts. Or it may have been simply that Kelley thought "Ally" already had quite enough inside jokes, thank you.

It doesn't really matter, because the line between the two shows seems to grow finer every week. Sure, they're on different networks, but the same man writes all or most of both series' episodes, and it's beginning to show.

Not only has Boston, where Kelley himself began as a lawyer, become his version of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, a seamless fictional world where characters can expect to meet again and again, but those characters are getting harder to tell apart.

I'm always amused by people who tell me how much they love "The Practice" and then, in the next breath, begin to run down "Ally McBeal" for its frivolity, its wiftiness, its unrelenting whininess.

Just what do they think is going on over at Bobby Donnell's office?

A defense lawyer is sharing an apartment with the prosecutor her colleagues most often face.

The managing partner's kissing the teen-age receptionist, one of his partners and, from time to time, the prosecutor.

There's a client carrying a woman's head around in his bag, for goodness sake.

Add a frog on life support and a unisex bathroom, and you might as well be watching "Ally McBeal."

Not that that would be a bad thing.

From the beginning, I've found "The Practice" less interesting than some of Kelley's previous shows, including "Picket Fences," perhaps because the writer seemed to be going to some lengths to suppress his odder impulses. The casting was terrific, but the lawyers were all so earnest and many of the cases unremarkable, at least by the standards Kelley himself helped set on "L.A. Law" and "Fences." I figured he was setting up this show for other writers, just as he did "Chicago Hope," and I didn't want to get too attached.

I lost my heart instead to "Ally McBeal," a show it's hard to imagine anyone but Kelley ever writing.

What's happened, though, is that Kelley has continued to write for both shows and the lines between them are blurring. And with the exception of some "Murder, She Wrote"-like coincidences on "The Practice" - must everyone they know be accused of murder? - it's been a happy development. Things seem to have lightened up a little, at least.

Is there enough whimsy in Kelley to supply two shows a week?

Maybe they could share.