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With five shows, even David Kelley may have reached his limit

Sunday, September 19, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Is there enough of David E. Kelley to go around? Viewers will judge for themselves this fall when prime time's most prolific writer juggles "Ally McBeal," "The Practice," a rejuvenated "Chicago Hope," ABC's new detective drama "Snoops" and Fox's edited-to-a-half-hour rerun series, "Ally."One guy can't possibly oversee all these projects and stick to his schedule to be home in time for dinner with his wife and kids. And Kelley doesn't pretend he can do it all. Even though his name will be in the credits of all five shows, Kelley said the original "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" will get the bulk of his attention.

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As a one-man television genre, expectations are high for each of these series. The strangest one of the bunch is "Ally," which Fox executives call a "repurposed" program.

Kelley hadn't even heard that expression when he met with TV critics in July, but even he acknowledged "Ally" will be reruns with a few new scenes added that were originally dropped because episodes ran too long.

"I've always had in my mind that 'Ally' would play well as a half-hour, and I've been tortured by the idea of wanting to try it," Kelley said. He tried editing a few of the one-hour episodes into half-hours with an emphasis on comedy before taking the idea to Fox management. "They were enthused enough they actually wanted to program it."

Kelley's desire to see "Ally" succeed stems from an interest in experimentation further down the road.

"If anything comes out of this, it's to come up with a half-hour idea [for a show] and let me introduce it as an hour and run 13 episodes in the hour format and let audiences get used to the characters," Kelley said. "Once they do become accustomed to the characters, then cut it back to a half-hour."

With the half-hour "Ally," there's no new writing involved, but Kelley will be more active on "Chicago Hope," a series he created and wrote in 1994.

After its first season, Kelley moved on and the show devolved into a turgid melodrama. CBS was ready to abandon "Hope" this spring until Kelley vowed to return, writing May's season finale, Thursday's season premiere and possibly a few more episodes. He'll be a more active consultant the rest of the season, reading scripts and offering suggestions.

In the May season finale, Kelley performed major surgery on the cast roster, dropping Christine Lahti, Jayne Brook, Stacy Edwards and Vondie Curtis-Hall from the show. (Eric Stoltz only had a one-year contract; Peter Berg left to develop his own show.)

New characters played by Carla Gugino, Barbara Hershey and Lauren Holly (a veteran of Kelley's "Picket Fences") will be introduced as the show moves to Thursday at 9 p.m.

The cast overhaul didn't go over well with everyone, including at least one cast member who was spared. Hector Elizondo, one of only two actors to remain with the show its entire run, was critical of the cast changes.

    Premiere dates for Kelley shows

"Chicago Hope": 9 p.m.. Thursday on CBS
"Snoops": 9 p.m. Sept. 26 on ABC
"The Practice": 10 p.m. Sept 26 on ABC
"Ally": 8 p.m. Sept 28 on Fox
"Ally McBeal": 9 p.m. Oct 25 on Fox


"I think it needed shaking up, but I'm not sure we needed to throw the baby out with the bath water," Elizondo said. "We lost two irreplaceable people -- Christine Lahti and Jayne Brook -- I'm truly sorry they're gone."

Mandy Patinkin, who was a regular during "Chicago Hope's" first season, returns this year on a recurring basis.

"[David] said he'd oversee scripts and run his pen through my words," Patinkin said. "I have a feeling he'll keep his promise and [the scripts] will echo his sensibility well."

That sensibility will include a return to the show's initial concept.

"The show had taken a little bit of a different direction in going into the personal lives of the characters," Kelley said. "That's one reason I went back to CBS and said there is still life left in it. The first road we went down was to explore the profession and the pioneering aspects of medicine, and there's a lot of those stories that remain to be told."

Kelley also had remorse after letting "Picket Fences" go after its fourth season.

"I didn't want to live that regret twice," Kelley said. "This show still has something to offer, and if we fail, we fail. But I think it's worth a try."

ABC recognizes that Kelley has become a brand-name producer, and the network scheduled "Snoops" to air at 9 p.m. before "The Practice" on Sunday nights, creating a two-hour DEK block.

Gina Gershon stars in "Snoops" as Glenn Hall, a sexy private eye with an authority problem. She and her staff of investigators (played by Paula Jai Parker and Danny Nucci) are "willing to treat the Constitution as nothing more than a flashing yellow light," as an ABC press release says.

But the agency's newest recruit, Dana Plant (Paula Marshall), is a by-the-book stickler for the law. She's also carrying the baggage of a past relationship with her former boss, police detective Greg McCormack (Edward Kerr).

" 'Snoops' is a nice companion piece with 'The Practice' because it's so different," Kelley said. "This show really is more about the escapism. It's more oriented toward fun and capers and high jinks, and I don't think it'll exhaust the sensibilities of 'The Practice' viewers"

Kelley wrote the "Snoops" pilot and two additional episodes. After that, he'll consult on the series, but he won't be writing much, a role he compares to putting a child up for adoption.

"It's not nearly as idiosyncratic or as eccentric as the other shows, at least in terms of the characters, so I don't think it's going to require my sensibility in writing the voices," Kelley said. "The problem of creating something in my individual voice and then turning it over to somebody else [won't] be as prevalent here."

Executive producer Allan Arkush, a 1998 Emmy nominee for directing Kelley's "Ally McBeal" and a 1999 Emmy nominee for NBC's "The Temptations" miniseries, will guide the visual consistency on "Snoops." The show has a vibrant look, with strong primary colors.

"It's constantly coming at you, and it's a way of keeping the energy going," Arkush said. "We're using a zoom lens more than most shows use."

Though ABC is high on "Snoops" because of the critical and commercial success of Kelley's past series, the pilot needed tweaking after it was presented to the network in May. Even before then changes were made: Gershon's character was originally written for a man (hence the masculine first name).

After the pilot, Kelley decided telling three stories per episode was one too many.

"It felt like there was a little too much of each and not enough of any. I also felt the experience was a little too slick and a little too cold," Kelley said. "So I decided to take one of the storylines out, kind of enhance and finesse the other two to bring the diet of our characters up a little more."

Kelley said Fox has first rights of refusal on whatever he develops next, but it may be a few TV seasons before the network gets a crack at his next creation. Even Kelley admits his plate is full.

"There's nothing next hopefully," Kelley said. "This is the limit in terms of being spread out."

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