|By BILL CARTER (New York Times)|
PASADENA, Calif. -- The most closely watched new television show of the fall season may be one that really isn't new at all.
But if David E. Kelley creates a workable show out of the half-hour re-edited version of "Ally McBeal" that Fox will introduce on Tuesday nights in September, he may be on the way to creating a whole new form of television: the incredible shrinking hourlong television show.
Kelley said in an interview here late last month that the condensed version of his hit series, which is appropriately being titled simply "Ally" because it's only half of the original show, grew mainly out of his reaction when he tried to sell repeats of the hourlong version in syndication.
"There wasn't that much heat on it," he said, "because of a mindset that said it was too hot for its own good, that it was therefore trendy and wouldn't be timeless."
Kelley, who is an intensely competitive man beneath his laconic genius-at-work persona, was, he acknowledged, "kind of annoyed."
He said, "I just felt, you know, I can sit down and make an `Ally' half-hour, and it may not be the best half-hour known to man, but it'll be better than some that are syndicating for prices that are far better than what was being offered on `Ally."'
Having thought from the beginning that the show might work well as a half- hour, Kelley set to editing down some early "Ally" episodes. When he had five down he presented the idea to Fox programmers. They liked it because it was very inexpensive, since the half-hour "Ally" episodes would essentially be reduced versions of repeats of the first two years of the show. It will add its own music, pick up some scenes edited out of the hourlong shows and concentrate on relationships.
At the same time he was hatching the idea to cut down "Ally," Kelley went to CBS, which was about to cancel his longest-running creation, "Chicago Hope," and talked it into a new season based on his commitment to write a closing episode for last season and an opener for this season. Kelley said he was convinced that the show still had areas to explore, especially in the field of experimental medicine.
He said he always felt he had given up too easily when CBS canceled an earlier series of his, "Picket Fences."
"I didn't want to relive that regret," he said.
All of this adds up to five shows on the air for David E. Kelley Productions this coming season. On a new one for ABC, "Snoops," Kelley said he would do little more than consult. He will continue to write most of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," and he said he would stay with both of those shows for the lives of their runs.
But he seems most intrigued by the reconfigured half-hour "Ally," which will be broadcast one night after new episodes of the hourlong "Ally McBeal."