Germann Is Big Fish in `Ally' Pond

By FRAZIER MOORE (AP Television Writer)

NEW YORK (AP) _ Considering his role as sharkish lawyer Richard Fish, Greg Germann should keep his own lawyer on call. With all the scenes he gets to steal, he could be nailed for grand larceny.

Or to put it another way: Germann, playing Ally McBeal's boss at a certain loopy Boston law firm, is having more fun than the law allows. And why not? He's part of the most focused-on, buzzed-about, argued-over series in years.

Now in its sophomore season, ``Ally McBeal'' (whose pilot airs on Fox tonight at 8 p.m. EST, followed by another repeat at 9 p.m.) is an irresistible irritant in the national psyche. The unisex restroom ... resident chanteuse Vonda Shepard ... dancing twins and that infernal dancing baby. Objection!

Overruled! Viewers love, hate, can't get enough of lawyer-flibbertigibbet Ally (series star Calista Flockhart) and her delightfully exasperating world.

In this well-stocked pond, Germann gets to play the big Fish _ a remarkable mix of airy self-obsession, Yuppie smarm and cold-fish directness. Not to mention his fetish for wattles, those folds of flesh that drape from the throats of certain-age women.

``He's a jerk, for lack of a better word _ but don't quote me,'' says Germann, grinning at the very idea of Fish. ``I always think of him as a 10-year-old boy, who's always forward-moving, to his own detriment sometimes, and not really thinking about how his behavior might affect other people or fit into social conventions. I just love it!''

Germann, who cleaned apartments for four years until he found success in Manhattan theater, had reluctantly moved to Los Angeles to pursue TV. There he landed supporting roles in two short-lived series: the NBC drama ``Sweet Justice'' (1994-95) and the Fox sitcom ``Ned and Stacey'' (1995-97).

Then, two years ago, he lucked into a show cooked up by David E. Kelley, a brilliant writer-producer already hailed for blending thorny issues with loony plot twists on ``Picket Fences'' and ``Chicago Hope.''

``I was getting more and more excited,'' Germann recalls. ``Then we did the pilot, and I thought it was great. At that point, I was certain we were doomed. I thought, `This probably won't find an audience. It's not a drama, it's not a sitcom.' But I thought it would be fun to do 13 episodes. Then we'd be done.''

Wrong. Then Germann was wrong about another thing: the prospective appeal of Fishisms, the epigram-like observations that Richard Fish is fond of tossing off.

``Everyone is alone. It's just easier to take, in a relationship.'' Or: ``Make enough money and everything else will follow.'' Not only did Fishisms become a running joke for the character and a signature of the show, they were even destined to adorn a line of camisoles and men's underwear.

Had Germann recognized this as a budding franchise?

``No! Because I'm an idiot! When I first read the term `Fishism,' I thought, `It doesn't sound right to me.' Luckily for me, I kept my mouth shut.''

But these days, Germann is happy to speak up about another matter. He is clearly bemused by one offshoot of his series' polymorphous appeal: viewers' spirited debate over what ``Ally McBeal,'' and Ally in particular, truly stand for.

Not only has Ally been anointed as a cultural phenomenon, she was also snapped up for the Zeitgeist Follies as a symbol. But of what? America's sweetheart? Feminist icon? Feminist washout? The polemic rages on.

``Ally _ she's pretty quirky,'' Germann says. ``She's a mess. She's clearly got problems, whining about her job and not having a boyfriend.

``I, for one, know plenty of women who _ well, you could say they're whining, or you could say they just don't know how to balance a career and a personal life. But I kinda don't understand how people are looking at this show to depict reality.''

It's a strange thing about commercial television: Viewers are conditioned to see the characters on network series as role models, reflecting not who the viewer is, but who the viewer longs to be. So if Ally doesn't measure up to one ideal or another, this lapse gets the audience stirred up.

``People want her character to be stronger,'' Germann says. ``Why? What would we gain? Then they say, `Her skirts are too short. Lawyers don't dress like that.'''

He sighs. ``I'm thinking: `This is a TV show! Sometimes we act out fantasies. We sing, we dance. We're just trying to do a show that's sexy and fun and silly, that has a heart.'''

Consider that a Germannism.

EDITOR'S NOTE _ Frazier Moore can be reached at