''Ally'' goes dramatic in shortened form

''Ally'' goes dramatic in shortened form HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - What should we call ``Ally?'' A series spin-on? A semi-clone, perhaps? By any description, this Ally without the McBeal signifies the dawn of an era in broadcast primetime, one that affords producers and networks the freedom to carve, condense and rejigger shows as they see fit.

David E. Kelley certainly runs a full-service shop. You want long ``Ally,'' you want short ``Ally,'' he can fill any off-net need. That's versatility.

With so many network hours hoping to spin some ``Ally McBeal'' magic with new dramedy offerings like NBC's ``Cold Feet'' and ``The West Wing'' and CBS' ``Now and Again,'' it is perhaps the ultimate irony that even ``Ally McBeal'' executive producer and writer Kelley would see fit to clone his own show. The further irony is that the Oct. 5 and 12 editions of the half-hour ``Ally'' that were supplied for review (the Sept. 28 premiere wasn't made available) work surprisingly well in the shrink-wrapped format. They flow smoothly. They make sense. They don't seem eviscerated in the least.

And boy, talk about a bargain. ``Ally'' has to make the MTV and Comedy Central original series budgets look positively gargantuan by comparison.

Here's what ``Ally'' loses in the slice-and-dice translation: its humor. In making the cosmic leap from ``Ally McBeal'' to ``Ally,'' the show looks to have shifted its focus to an almost entirely dramatic one. This inspires yet another irony, since ``Ally McBeal'' just earned Kelley an outstanding comedy series Emmy and is promoted in Fox press materials as a ``half-hour comedy version'' of the show.

Wrong. ``Ally'' comes a lot closer to resembling the bittersweet tone of the late, great NBC/Lifetime series ``The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd'' than it does the alternately wiggy and introspective sensibilities of the Monday hour from which it is chiseled. From the looks of episodes two and three, at least, much of the charming, broad absurdity that defines the ``McBeal'' experience winds up in the round file. The idea here, according to Fox, is to pare a storyline to its bare essentials while grafting scattered bits of original footage into the mix. In the two reviewed episodes, it would thus be editors Thomas R. Moore and Philip Neel who have the most important assignment. They must breathe fresh life into year-old and two-year-old reruns while cutting them in half -- no easy task.

So far, they look to have met the challenge with genuine vision and aplomb.

The ``Ally'' installments on Oct. 5 and 12 are both gleaned from first-year episodes of ``McBeal,'' which launches its third season on Oct. 25. The Oct. 5 effort, entitled ``The Promise,'' focuses on the vain efforts of a massively overweight lawyer (Jay Leggett) to summon a romance with Ally (Calista Flockhart) at the expense of his portly fiancee (Rusty Schwimmer). Despite its compressed form, the teleplay showcases Kelley at his achingly poignant best.

The second episode, ``100 Tears Away,'' is significantly less dynamic, but equally consistent stylistically, as it depicts a defiant Ally taking on the legal establishment after her mental acuity is called into question.

OK, so this little ``Ally McBeal Lite'' gambit seems to play with surprising steadiness. Now, all that the recycled weekly rerun must do is thrive in a Tuesday-8 p.m. environment crowded with ``Spin City,'' ``Just Shoot Me,'' ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' ``JAG'' and ``Dilbert.''

If ``Ally'' can somehow manage to pull through that competitive wringer and inspire something resembling ratings promise, expect the clones of the clones to follow; TV executives can't resist halving their cake and eating it.

Ally McBeal .............. Calista Flockhart

Georgia Thomas ........... Courtney Thorne-Smith

Richard Fish ............. Greg Germann

Renee Radick ............. Lisa Nicole Carson

Elaine Vassal ............ Jane Krakowski

Vonda Shepard ............ Herself

Nelle Porter ............. Portia de Rossi

Ling Woo ................. Lucy Liu

John ``The Biscuit'' Cage .. Peter MacNicol

Billy Alan Thomas ........ Gil Bellows

Harry Pippin ............. Jay Leggett

Angela Tharp ............. Rusty Schwimmer

Judge Stephenson ......... James Mathers

Judge Happy Boyle ........ Phil Leeds

Judge Johnson Hawk ....... Kenne Curtis

Judge Henrietta Fulham ... Carol Locatell

Mary Clarkson ............ Audrie Neenan

Judge Marshall Pink ...... Zeljko Ivanek

Judge Whipper Cone ....... Dyan Cannon

Filmed in Los Angeles by David E. Kelley Prods. in association with 20th Century Fox TV. Executive producer, David E. Kelley; co-executive producers, Jonathan Pontell, Jeffrey Kramer; producers, Steve Robin, Pamela Wisne,Mike Listo; co-producers, Kim Hamberg, Roseanne M. Bonora-Keris; directors, Victoria Hochberg, Sandy Smolan; writer, Kelley; camera, Billy Dickson; production designer, Peter Politanoff; editors, Thomas R. Moore, Philip Neel; music, Danny Lux, Vonda Shepard; sound, Paul Lewis; casting, Jeanie Bacharach, Sharon Jetton, Judith Weiner.