'Ally' is McBeal Light; Review: Stripped-down version of the popular Fox show uses songs to patch over the jagged edges left by the film editor's knife; Fall television


No new series better typifies the downsizing of prime-time television than "Ally," the half-hour version of "Ally McBeal" premiering tonight on Fox.

Commerce has always held the upper hand over art when it came to network television, but at least there was some tension between the two. With "Ally," network TV gives over completely to business considerations, re-wrapping used goods in a splashy package and re-selling them to us as new, because it is more cost-effective than making something that really is new.

In the best tradition of corporate-think, the networks have adopted a marketing buzzword for what they are doing: "repurposing." "Ally" is the poster show for what Fox calls "repurposed material."

Fox sent critics three episodes of "Ally" for preview, but not the one that airs tonight, "Once in a Lifetime." This is a cut-down version of the episode that already aired in which Ally (Calista Flockhart) and Cage (Peter MacNicol) decide to go out on a "real date," but then Ally has second thoughts and starts acting strangely in hopes of getting Cage to break it off.

The network explanation for why the episode was not sent out is that "new scenes are currently being shot." The question: Why now?

Fox and David E. Kelley, the creator of "Ally McBeal," announced "Ally" in May. This is late September, and they are shooting new scenes now? And why did Kelley need to shoot new scenes for the premiere but not the next three episodes -- the ones critics were able to screen?

The screened episodes were: "The Promise," in which an overweight attorney falls in love with Ally after she gives him CPR; "100 Tears Away," in which Ally trips a woman in the supermarket after they fight over a last can of potato chips; and "Fools Night Out," which features Ally working a mediation case between the minister of one of her colleagues and a jilted singer (Jennifer Holliday) in the minister's church choir.

Based on these three, the only real differences between "Ally" and your standard rerun are some fancy, quick-cut editing, more music and the inclusion of a few out-takes.

More music is a good thing. I love Vonda Shepard. Like thousands of other folks, I went out and bought my first Vonda Shepard CD after seeing her on "Ally McBeal" in the fall of 1997.

Kelley uses scenes of Shepard singing and the audio of her music to paper over some of the rougher editing transitions. If her songs and performance were used as in a stage musical, to further the mood or theme, I would stand on my chair and applaud.

But Kelley, who is ever-so-thinly stretched across too many TV series to count, doesn't even put that much care into his new "Ally" product. The additional music seems to be there mainly to distract you from the bumpy transition.

There are other problems with these cut-down versions. The rhythm of the half-hour on "The Promise," for example, is hopelessly uneven.

Kelley takes long scenes that were constructed to play out as drama and speeds them up through editing to play at the bang-bang pace of TV comedy. In the process, any poignancy or deeper meaning is lost.

As much as I'd like to blame "Ally" on Fox and its owner, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Kelley is as much or more at fault.

In an interview in July, he acknowledged that "business considerations" were behind the creation of "Ally." Simply put, a half-hour comedy is much easier to sell in syndication than an hour-long drama.

But Kelley insisted he would not have done "Ally" unless there was also "artistic justification" for it. His artistic justification: He says that he "always imagined Ally McBeal as a half-hour program."

I can't argue with what Kelley always imagined. But I can denounce what he and Fox are doing: further cheapening network television and insulting our intelligence in the process by "repurposing" their prime-time reruns.

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