Make "Pratice" Perfect

EW Online's memo to David E. Kelley. Mark Harris explains what's wrong with ''Ally McBeal,'' ''The Practice,'' ''Chicago Hope,'' and ''Snoops''

Here are the latest updates from the world according to David E. Kelley: Ally McBeal is having sex with strangers in car washes, Bobby Donnell is getting ready for his wedding, ''Chicago Hope'' is currently being overrun by a trio of gorgeous female physicians, and two hot-babe private eyes are picking up where Charlie's Angels left off.

This probably isn't news to you. Kelley is King of the World of TV right now. In its third season, Fox's ''Ally McBeal'' is getting some of its highest ratings ever and creeping toward the Nielsen Top 10 -- ditto for ABC's ''The Practice.'' ''Snoops,'' a troubled show that most industry experts thought would be in the crypt by November sweeps, has, surprisingly, found enough of an audience to merit a full-season 22-episode order. And CBS' ''Chicago Hope,'' on the brink of cancellation last season, has been smashingly revived and is seeing decent ratings even against the brutal competition of ''Frasier.'' In other words, Kelley couldn't be hotter. Which is why I feel perfectly justified in picking on him for a few things. Don't worry -- he can take it.

(1) However you feel about Kelley's shows -- personally, I like ''The Practice'' and ''Chicago Hope,'' but not ''Snoops'' or ''Ally McBeal'' -- there's no denying his obsession with the pretty. Beautiful people on Kelley's shows seem to suffer more interestingly than everyone else. Thus, on ''The Practice,'' we're treated to endless new wrinkles in the relationship between the unwrinkled Kelley surrogate Bobby (Dylan McDermott) and Lindsay (Kelli Williams) -- was ever a TV wedding less eagerly anticipated? -- when in fact I have yet to meet any fan of this show who thinks Bobby is an interesting character.

Where are the good plotlines -- hell, the good scenes -- for Emmy winner Camryn Manheim, who Kelley can't seem to treat as anything but the Sad Fat Girl Who Fell For A Cross-Dressing Serial Killer? Get this woman into court! At least the show's stopped making big-head jokes about Jimmy (Michael Badalucco), but you can't deny it's a David Kelley thread. The thin, white, beautiful people get the A plots and big moral dilemmas -- the others (John Cage on ''Ally McBeal,'' Ellenor Frutt on ''The Practice,'' Dr. Cacaci on ''Chicago Hope'') are either comic or pathetic relief.

(2) Now, I like what Kelley's doing with this ''Chicago Hope.'' He's taken a series that was badly adrift and seems to be turning it into the ''Practice'' of medical shows, a smart move. But there seems to be a little something egomaniacal in brooming out so much about the old series. Surely, Kate Austin, so complicatedly and brilliantly played by Christine Lahti, was worth saving. Surely, something interesting could have been done with Vondie Curtis-Hall's character, by my count the first gay African American on a TV drama. And surely, Kelley will eventually realize that the talents of Barbara Hershey extend beyond her ability to look beatific beneath dark red ringlets.

(3) Those half-hour ''Ally'' repackagings. Hey, David, I love your work -- but not so much that I'm interested in going through your garbage. Enough said.

(4) For TV's most famous and articulate current liberal, Kelley seems to have conspicuous trouble in one area: homosexuality. Yeah, yeah, I can see some of your postings already -- it's only a TV show, why does everything have to be politically correct, don't take it so seriously, isn't ''Will & Grace'' enough for you? (And those are the POLITE ones.) Well, save it. Let's look at the record, starting with ''Ally McBeal.'' And I don't mean the vaunted ''lesbian lip-lock'' last week, which has less to do with homosexuality than with Kelley's apparent close study of the male appetite for what Penthouse magazine used to term ''girl-girl action.'' For a show that's all about sex, it's interesting that gay characters never figure in. (Well, there was that dead transvestite hooker in the first season.) Now, on to ''The Practice.'' There's John Larroquette's Joey Heric -- creepy, bitchy serial killer. And... that's it. Now on to ''Chicago Hope,'' where, as I noted, the show's one gay character was unceremoniously dumped the minute Kelley retook the creative reins. Kelley has more clout with the networks than any producer currently working in television. On this one count, he could do better.

(5) ''Snoops.'' Why, God, why?