The oil slick that was 'Ally'

So if "Ally McBeal" has really become as bad as everyone says, why do 13.3 million viewers still tune in every week?

I'm guessing gaper delay.

That's what the people in traffic helicopters call the phenomenon that often occurs near the scene of an accident. The road's clear, but cars slow down anyway as their drivers cast a quick eye over the aftermath, taking in the shattered glass, the crushed metal and the victims, upright and otherwise.

Most of us can do nothing to help, but it's only human to look.

We can't help "Ally McBeal," either - only creator David E. Kelley can do that - but it hasn't stopped some from trying.

Eat something, we've urged the bony Calista Flockhart, as if a more robust Ally would be able to keep her head when all around her were losing theirs and blaming it on her.

Billy's so boring, we complained for a while. Give him something to do.

Billy's a cartoon character, we later whined, after Kelley had poor Gil Bellows cut and bleach his hair and start pounding his chest like some cross between Iron John and King Kong. Lose him.

Too many blondes, we huffed, after Blonde No. 1, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith), and Blonde No. 2, Elaine (Jane Krakowski), were joined by Blonde No. 3, Nelle (Portia de Rossi). Someone's gotta go.

"Ally McBeal's" getting just like "The Practice," some of us complained, with a woman defense lawyer and a woman assistant DA sharing apartments on both Kelley shows. But after Kelley removed Ally's roommate, Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson) from the DA's office and sent her into wacky private practice with Whipper (Dyan Cannon), we wondered: Why's Renee such a ditz?

This week's helpful advice is coming from TV Guide, which, taking note of the upcoming departures of Bellows and Thorne-Smith (and the continuing absence of Carson, who has had her own problems offscreen), suggests that Kelley steal a page from the "Law & Order" playbook and fill the void with new characters (something he's reportedly been planning to do, anyway).

It would be hard to imagine a situation less analogous to that of NBC's "L&O." People magazine is reporting that Billy's exit from "Ally" later this season will involve a brain tumor, but that he'll definitely be back for guest appearances next year - as a ghost.

Let me know when that happens on "Law & Order."

If new characters are usually good news on NBC's cops-and-lawyers show, it's because "L&O" isn't character-driven, it's story-driven. Lots of dramas, including Kelley's, rip their stories from the headlines, but "Law & Order" brags about it. The characters, each of whom is allowed a very limited number of idiosyncrasies, are there to serve the story of the week. If one or two - or six - leave, it's no biggie: There'll be more along next season.

"Ally McBeal," on the other hand, is all about characters. In its first charming season, it established a tight little group of lawyers and friends, all of whom shared a unisex bathroom and none of whom seemed to ever come up with a billable hour.

Ally, who had not yet had sex with a stranger in a carwash, was still borderline believable, and her quirks - even her tendency to hallucinate - were still endearing.

At some point, though, Ally became just plain borderline, and the rest of the cast got pretty strange, too. As the cast expanded, each new member would briefly get a coherent story line, only to see it wander into weirdness as Kelley's attention turned elsewhere.

Will two more new characters help him focus on the people who first lured so many of us to "Ally McBeal"? I doubt it.

Time to move on, folks.

There's nothing to see here.