'Ally' returns to All That Attention

Greg Braxton / Los Angeles Times

The distinctive wail of a lone bagpipe filled the air as its player, John (The Biscuit) Cage, paced in front of a group of uncertain mourners.

Cage's beloved pet frog had croaked -- not the noisy kind, but the fatal kind. Cage, the eccentric partner of the Cage/Fish & Associates law firm, was officiating over a memorial service for his departed companion, who met his fate when the toilet in which he was swimming was accidentally flushed.

For Cage (Peter MacNichol), it couldn't have been sadder. But for the other attendees of the service -- particularly the wide-eyed attorney Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) -- it couldn't have been funnier. Even at Cage/Fish, where unisex bathrooms, face bras and talk about the sexual fascination of wattles is an everyday occurrence, a frog funeral was really over the top.

Another weird and wacky season has begun way on "Ally McBeal," Fox's quirky comedy about a neurotic lawyer and her colleagues that became last season's most talked-about new show, a pop-culture touchstone that ignited debates over its depiction of professional women while plucking Flockhart from relative obscurity to magazine-cover fixture.

"Ally," which has spawned a hit soundtrack and an upcoming book, earned an Emmy nomination as outstanding comedy series, where it lost to "Frasier." The series and Flockhart won Golden Globes for best comedy series and best comedy actress. Industry insiders have referred to new shows such as WB's "Felicity" as clones of "Ally." A commercial for CBS' "The Brian Benben Show," Ally's new rival on Monday night, features the male star in an Ally-type skirt.

Not their intention

While pleased with the show's popularity, creator and executive producer David E. Kelley still is scratching his head about the furor over the show and the arguments and discussions it has sparked, as are Flockhart and the other cast members. Much of the discussions centered on Ally's neurotic demeanor, her waif-like figure, the notoriously short skirts, her problems with men and her obsession with her ex-boyfriend/co-worker, and her unconventional manner in the courtroom.

The quirky and offbeat nature of "Ally" will remain largely the same this season, but Kelley disclosed a few changes.

Ally will not be as consumed by her obsession with former boyfriend and current colleague Billy (Gil Bellows) -- "That will be part of her history, but not part of the conflicts and hurdles in front of her now," Kelley said. More importantly, a new lawyer named Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi) has joined the firm and will disrupt the harmony of the lawyers who not only like to work together, but socialize together.

There will be more plot lines revolving around supporting characters, particularly Billy and his wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith).