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Passable 'Public'; 'Ally' rallies

Sunday, October 22, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It would be easy to dismiss David E. Kelley's latest series, "Boston Public," after its first episode. I was prepared to, and I think many viewers will tune in once and never come back. To be sure, tomorrow's pilot is sensational, unrealistic and stuffed to the gills with trademark Kelley gimmicks.

But after watching two additional episodes, I'm willing to give "Boston Public" a passing grade, although it's not yet an A+ student.

The teachers act like children, insulting one another, firing a gun in a classroom, wandering through the halls screaming, having arguments in front of students. The principal slams a bullying teen against lockers.

 
    TV REVIEWS

"Boston Public"

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow on Fox.

Starring: Chi McBride, Anthony Heald.


"Ally McBeal"

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow on Fox.

Starring: Calista Flockhart, Robert Downey Jr.

 
 

The pupils, on the other hand, behave beyond their young years, creating Web sites with "South Park"-style graphics, blackmailing teachers and telling one instructor, "Most of the girls find you incredibly sexy. Sometimes when I go to bed at night I think of you and touch myself."

It's ridiculous, but perhaps not as far-fetched as I originally thought. While watching "Boston Public" a friend who teaches sixth grade called. I told her about the show, and though she said it doesn't represent the norm, she confided she knows of fifth-graders who were caught having sex in the teacher's lounge and a sixth-grader who kept hugging his teacher so he could cop a feel.

Maybe Kelley's exaggerations aren't so excessive after all.

In a commanding yet sympathetic performance, Chi McBride ("The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer") stars as Principal Steven Harper, a voice of reason and sanity amidst a sea of half-baked personalities. History teacher Harvey Lipschultz (Fyvush Finkel from Kelley's "Picket Fences") encourages female students to wear bras "for the good of the country." Geology teacher Harry Senate (Nicky Katt) brings a gun to school to make a point. Special ed teacher Marla Hendricks (Loretta Devine) screams hysterically and leaves a message on her blackboard that reads, "Gone to kill myself. Hope you're happy."

Amid these loons, there are a few stable educators, including music teacher Marilyn Sudor (Sharon Leal), social studies department head Lauren Davis (Jessalyn Gilsig) and vice principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald).

Guber - the name is intentional - is the most sympathetic character on "Boston Public," reminiscent of "Ally McBeal's" John Cage or the coroner on "Picket Fences."

There's little in tomorrow's "Boston Public" premiere that suggests what becomes clear in later episodes: The show is Kelley's valentine to public educators who are overworked, underpaid and too often taken for granted.

In episode No. 2 he shows the plight of Davis, who refuses to be fingerprinted along with other faculty members on principle. She says most of her peers from college are only seeking more money, "forsaking ethics everyday to make more of it, and I'm the one who gets fingerprinted."

The third episode includes a school board meeting at which Marla Hendricks, heretofore a screaming mental case, makes important arguments that don't excuse her behavior, but at least explain it.

"You show me a teacher who doesn't almost lose his or her mind sometimes and I'll show you a teacher who's not trying," she shouts. "I can show you some parents who aren't. You send [your kids] to school thinking, 'Job's done, it's up to the teachers now.' It doesn't work that way. ... A lot of the doing we do is parenting. You want to compare failures? Step right up. Who's first?"

Kelley's using absurd humor both to entertain and ultimately to drive home legitimate concerns about education, parenting and the disrespect of teachers by parents and students. The big question will be whether he takes too long to reveal his characters to be flawed heroes. If viewers don't have patience - and let's face it, they rarely do - "Boston Public" could be facing expulsion in spite of what are ultimately good intentions.

Kelley's other Monday night Fox series, "Ally McBeal," is coming off an uneven season of emotional shocks (Billy's death), poorly drawn new characters (James LeGros' dental hygiene-obsessed Mark Alpert) and flights of fancy that were far from fanciful. The show became over the top and lacking in the emotional resonance that characterized early seasons.

In the first three episodes of this season, especially tomorrow's premiere, "Ally" gets its groove back. So far, new cast member Robert Downey Jr. only appears in the first episode, but he and series star Calista Flockart make superb sparring partners.

"You're the biggest ass I have ever met," she says.

"Perhaps this is where you kiss it goodbye," he replies.

There's a "Moonlighting"-esque I-hate-you-now-kiss-me vibe to the relationship, but best of all it means Ally bids farewell to the Brit Brian (guest star Tim Dutton), who makes a proposal of sorts as tomorrow's episode begins.

The second episode sees the return of Courtney Thorne Smith, whose Georgia character Kelley has neglected since the show began. She'll be a recurring guest star this season. In her return, she finds herself on opposite sides of the courtroom from her old "Melrose Place" cast-mate, Marcia Cross (crazy Kimberly on "MP"), who plays a client attracted to her attorney, John Cage (Peter MacNicol).

In tomorrow's episode, Kelley successfully intertwines the complexity of Ally's inner life with a court case that features parallel themes. That's been a hallmark of the most creatively successful "Ally McBeal" episodes in the past - and hopefully will be again in the future.


You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.



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