|David E. Kelley's trio of sassy women has temperatures rising|
Ling got her job at a law firm by sucking sensuously on the senior partner's finger. T Nelle ambushed a senior partner at the firm, invited him to her office, and stripped down to her panties. T Lucy used mistletoe as an excuse to plant a surprise kiss on the lips of her heartthrob boss — fulfilling the fantasy of millions of female TV viewers.
These are the Kelley Girls — three outrageous and beautiful law-firm characters who started as temps but have earned their way to co-starring status in TV writer-producer David E. Kelley's hit shows "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" this season.
Now "Ally McBeal" has made room — lots of it — for Queens' Lucy Liu as Ling Woo and Australia's Portia de Rossi as Nelle Porter — attorneys with legal skills and sex appeal to spare. "The Practice" relies on 18-year-old Marla Sokoloff, as the feisty young receptionist Lucy Hatcher, to chime in, mouth off and frequently inject humor into an already lively drama.
With the new additions, both shows are doing better than ever. "Ally McBeal," on Fox, just reached its all-time high in the Nielsen ratings, and "The Practice" is doing so well in its new Sunday time slot on ABC that it has begun drawing more viewers than its lead-in, "20/20."
Creatively, too, both shows are on a roll. The Golden Globes recently awarded Kelley an unprecedented dual honor: best drama for "The Practice," best comedy for "Ally McBeal." Last year, "The Practice" won an Emmy as TV's best drama series.
As far back as his days on "Picket Fences," Kelley has been known for pushing envelopes and presenting strong, complex female characters such as "Picket" physician Jill Brock — portrayed by triple Emmy-winner Kathy Baker.
But hardly anyone seemed prepared for Liu's insulting, litigious Ling Woo, who started as a client of Nelle but quickly moved on to unusual romantic scenes with Greg Germann as senior partner Richard Fish.
Until Ling arrived, Fish was fixated on an older woman, Judge Whipper Cone, played by Dyan Cannon. But that was before Ling instructed him on how to kiss, gave him a body massage using only her long black hair, and generally kept him in a constant state of excitement even though she bluntly dismissed intercourse as "too messy."
Heat and Horror
To Fish, she's fire; to her other colleagues, who see only her painfully obnoxious side and her coldly cynical demeanor, she's pure ice. Not to mention mean.
"I get the scripts, and I can't believe what I have to do, or what I have to say," says Liu, who came to TV and "Ally" after acting in a slew of low-budget independent films. Just before landing the series, she appeared briefly as a dominatrix opposite Mel Gibson in the movie "Payback."
"It's really hard for me to keep a straight face [as Ling]," she continues. "The things that she says, I mean, they're crazy. Well, not so much crazy as just sassy and blunt, and she gets to talk about men's ‘dumb sticks' and penises.
"It's not so much the word ‘penis' — it's just the idea of her very clear attitude about men and women, and how she feels. And [in] her scenes with Greg Germann as Fish … we kind of cross the line and do things that haven't been done before."
Laughing a bit wickedly, she adds, "These things that are happening on the show, I don't even know if I would ever have the opportunity to do them on film."
The other new cast members also feel they're pushing the envelope as well as their acting boundaries.
De Rossi, who had supporting roles in the movies "Sirens" and "Scream 2," identifies her own most challenging scene to date as the one in which Nelle ambushes Peter MacNicol's John Cage in the office.
"I come out at the top of the scene with a purpose, and I'm very confident and strong," she says.
After undressing to a stunningly sexy bra-and-panties set, she goes topless — only to have him reject her advances.
"By the end of that scene, I'm reduced to near tears, and so vulnerable and so open and like a little girl," she recalls.
"I was kind of concerned about it before I shot it," de Rossi admits, "because I thought, ‘Oh, all that horrible male energy is going to be coming my way.' It can happen on the set sometimes; you're standing around in your underwear, and you feel it from the crew." But the actual disrobing wasn't terribly difficult, because everyone was so professional, she says.
Then she laughs loudly. "Because they were so professional, their eyes completely averted, and they were so respectful, I was like, ‘I'm cute, right?' "
That Unexpected Kiss
Right. Undeniably cute, also, is Sokoloff, an actress with years of TV experience behind her, including two seasons on "Full House" and a recurring role on "Party of Five."
Yet she's still so young, she's a senior in high school and is required to report to a tutor between scenes. That's true even for scenes in which her character, Lucy, is standing on a chair to kiss a Boston Celtic, or taking the initiative kissing her boss — sexy, intense Bobby Donnell, played by the actor recently named by the fashion bible "W" as the best-dressed man on TV — Dylan McDermott.
"When I first got that script," Sokoloff recalls, "I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what am I going to do?' I was really nervous about it."
Getting the Dylan McDermott kiss right, she remembers, took about 20 takes.
"It was a very long process. They had so many different angles. It's just like, wow. It's so complicated, when you're doing a kiss with somebody. It's like, ‘Marla, you're blocking Dylan. Move your head a little.' It's not romantic or anything, that's for sure.
"I was totally nervous. But after a few takes, it wasn't a big deal at all. It was like, ‘Yeah, whatever. I gotta go, y'know, kiss Dylan McDermott, run up to school, do a little English, go back downstairs, kiss Dylan McDermott a little more.' It was a hard day. [But] it made my mother, and every girlfriend of mine, extremely jealous, and so that was a positive thing."
They love Lucy
When the three actresses first met Kelley, they weren't necessarily being seen for the roles they ended up winning. Liu actually auditioned for the part of Nelle, but afterward, Kelley wrote the Ling role for her.
While de Rossi competed for the part of Nelle, she also was trying out for the secretary on "The Practice," which went instead to Sokoloff.
Just before her tryout, de Rossi recalls, she was waiting in a room, staring at a giant "Ally McBeal" cast picture and thinking, "How on Earth am I ever going to fit into this picture?' The show is just so perfect. What are they doing putting another character in the mix?"
What they're doing, according to media analyst Marc Berman of Seltel, a company that advises stations on programing, is keeping their shows fresh with new characters, new themes and new ideas.
"The Lucy Liu character has taken off very well," Berman notes. "This show is hot, and not only in the ratings."
Manhattan psychotherapist and family practitioner Michelle Ascher Dunn echoes Berman, saying that the teens in her practice were initially ambivalent about Sokoloff's Lucy — but became more enthusiastic as Lucy became more assertive, brassy and self-assured.
"You can look and see what they're saying on the Internet, in the chat rooms, on the "Ally McBeal" Web sites," Berman continued. "These are characters viewers like. This is a show, right now, where people come to work the next day and say, ‘Did you see ‘Ally McBeal' last night?' It's that kind of water-cooler conversation — a hot ticket."