'Ally' writer has a full plate

By ELLEN GRAY (Special from The Philadelphia Daily News)

With America's ongoing obsession with Calista Flockhart's weight -- call it an intervention if you will, but it doesn't excuse rudeness -- some of you may not have noticed that the "Ally McBeal" star's upper arms aren't the only things looking a mite scrawny these days.

Her story lines, too, could use some nourishment.

I've been worried for some time now that "Ally McBeal" creator David E. Kelley was spreading himself too thin, especially as "Ally," his lawyer show for Fox, and "The Practice," his lawyer show for ABC, seemed to be growing more and more alike.

So I wasn't too happy when I heard that Kelley, who writes most of the scripts for both shows, had also promised CBS he'd be taking a bigger role in "Chicago Hope" next season (a commitment that started with last week's season finale, which Kelley wrote). It's no secret that "Hope" has never recovered from Kelley's decision to pull back a few seasons ago, but it's hard to see what -- other than money -- would motivate him to try to save it, especially because the finale had him jettisoning most of the show's cast.

Money, too, would seem to be behind Kelley's latest scheme, "Ally," which involves a second show based on his "Ally McBeal" character, a half-hour series for Fox that confines itself to one story line each week, mixing previously shot footage with new material.

I can certainly see what Fox execs see in this idea -- a half-hour show that doesn't involve animation, a character that needs no introduction -- but I wonder if they've thought it through. On her best days, Ally McBeal's a character who walks the line between harsh reality and hopeless fantasy. On her worst (and she's had some bad days this season), she threatens to become a cartoon. With seven animated series on the air already, does Fox really need another cartoon?

And that's not the end of Kelley's projects. Last week, ABC announced another Kelley production, "Snoops," which will star Paula Marshall ("Cupid") and Gina Gershon as private detectives. But at least Kelley isn't expected to be writing "Snoops." Taking a step in the direction of his "L.A. Law" mentor, Steven Bochco ("NYPD Blue"), he may be looking to oversee some shows from a greater distance, but if the distance is too great -- as it apparently was with "Chicago Hope" -- Kelley's name in the credits may not carry much weight.

I recently brought up the subject of Producers Who Spread Themselves Too Thin (and the Critics Who Waste Their Time Worrying About Them) with Phil Rosenthal, creator of the CBS hit "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Rosenthal, who a year ago was planning to move on from "Raymond" after this season to create a new show under a development deal he has with Disney, is now in negotiations to stay.

"I've kind of weaseled my way into staying at least another year," he said. "It's not written in stone yet, but everyone has told me that it will work out."

Rosenthal's reasoning?

"Who knew 'Raymond' was going to become 'Raymond'? Who knew it would be this, and who gets this? I know how rare this is. I'd be stupid to want to leave."

The head of a talented team of writers, Rosenthal was quick to distinguish himself from the hyper-prolific Kelley ("I'd love to know how he does it"), but he minced no words when asked about what keeps most television writers and producers from staying long enough in one place to enjoy their success:

"People see success and they want another success. It's simple. They see money, they want more money."

It's a theory that probably explains 99 percent of the the bad ideas in Hollywood, but I'm still not sure it applies to Kelley, who by this time probably needs ready cash the way his wispy star needs control-top pantyhose.

Maybe the drive to write three or four series and oversee a fifth is part of a development deal Kelley signed with the devil long ago (say, the week before he married Michelle Pfeiffer).

Or maybe, just maybe, he's in it for the TV trivia points.

How many shows have spun off title characters while the original series was still on the air?

How many David Kelley scripts can be written -- in longhand, no less -- on the head of a pin?