Reality check

Richard Helm (Vancouver Province)

PASADENA, Calif. -- It's been a good year and bad year for prolific Hollywood writer-producer David E. Kelley, and the ups and downs have been working him the last couple of weeks as well.

Flu season 2000 has hit hard on the sets of Kelley's hit shows, Ally McBeal and The Practice, reducing stars Calista Flockhart and Dylan McDermott to spot service at Kelley's sprawling studio complex at Manhattan Beach.

McDermott, recently named by the fashion bible W as best-dressed man in America, has all but lost his voice to bronchitis.

That's the latest bad news. The latest good news? ABC has decided to showcase a special episode of The Practice in the mega-cherry timeslot following this year's Super Bowl.

That's right, the primo exposure is going to The Practice, not Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as many expected.

All of this comes hard on the heels of another decision by ABC to dump Kelley's new freshman drama, The Snoops, after which Fox decided to give up the ghost on Ally, Kelley's attempt to repackage footage from the hour-long Ally McBeal into a second half-hour rerun.

That must have hurt, not to mention the conspicuous appearance of one of Kelley's two feature films of the year, Lake Placid, on some influential Worst Movies of the Year lists.

"The reality is that there's so much work to do between The Practice and Ally that I haven't had time to dwell on the losses," said Kelley, during a break in filming.

Hard to think grey thoughts on a January day like this. The Kelley studios are just down a bit from Marina Del Rey, the sun is pounding down 20 degrees out of a clear blue sky, and the glare coming off the shiny black Jaguar and Mercedes Benz parked at the door is almost blinding.

"I think if I had spent an entire year on Mystery, Alaska and only Mystery, Alaska, only to find out that my mother was the only one who went and watched it, that would be rather devastating.

"But probably the best kind of therapy for those kind of defeats is getting back in the saddle and going back to work, and I was already in a saddle on a galloping horse with respect to Ally and The Practice."

Currently in its fourth season, The Practice has won two Emmys for outstanding drama series, a Golden Globe and a number of other awards.

Ally McBeal, now in its third season, has also roped in a bevy of awards, including back-to-back Golden Globes and this year's Emmy for outstanding comedy.

Some might say the comedy has taken an obsessively sexual turn on Ally McBeal this year. The episode being filmed on this visit was so "unusually sensitive," according to Kelley producer Bob Breech, the set was closed to visitors. But that doesn't mean it had anything to do with sex, he hastened to add.

Kelley will concede, a bit wearily, that the season's first two episodes, featuring respectively Ally and a stranger having sex in a car wash and Ally and Ling in a pseudo-lesbian pas de deux, were a bit spicier than the norm.

"The intent there was not so much to be sexually explicit as it was to send an immediate wakeup call to the viewers that this show would continue to change and grow," Kelley said. "If you look at the balance of the first eight episodes I don't think there's more sex than last year."

The Ally-Ling tango was the most-watched Ally McBeal ever but the ratings have slid a bit since. Kelley acknowledges some viewers might have abandoned the show as some silly sex joke.

"Ally, from the beginning, has been both praised and criticized for the very same elements. Some people love it, some people hate it.

"I think that is essential to the success of Ally McBeal, that it can't stay in the same place. It has to move in different directions and cross new boundaries and in doing that you're going to alienate viewers at the same time maybe that you'll reward others and maybe gain new ones."

Kelley didn't gain many viewers with Snoops, his short-lived private detective project, despite the considerable drawing power of stars such as Gina Gershon and Paula Marshall.

"We never got it there," Kelley said with a little shrug. "I was disappointed we never got it to be a good show."

He saw the writing on the wall when ABC decided to move the show to Thursday, a killing zone for any show up against NBC's must-see lineup. Based on the tepid ratings and "lack of creative merit," the show just didn't seem worth fighting for.

"I think the network had certainly cooled on the idea and it was a pretty mutual decision."

Kelley's name has also been associated with Chicago Hope this season, another show he created and one to which he was supposed to be turning renewed attention. He's written only one episode this year and sent along some notes to the supervising producers.

Any series in its seventh season becomes a highly expensive proposition, Kelley noted, due to spiralling salaries and production costs. He doesn't sound very confident the CBS medical drama will be back for another season.

"It's on the bubble again for next year just like it was last year."

Kelley fulfilled his series commitment to ABC with Snoops and has inked a new exclusive series development pact with Fox. He says he'll never again create a series he can't devote his full attention to.

"Whatever the next series will be, it will be one that I feel connected to creatively and something I'll have a passion for and want to be hands-on with. I'm not a great delegator in terms of creating a series and then letting someone else run it."