Wasted 'Time'; 'Ally' gets thin; Previews: Good writing is lost on actress Jennifer Love Hewitt in a Fox spinoff; but the writing is stretched on "McBeal."


So, one day, plucky Sarrah Merrin (Jennifer Love Hewitt) says a tearful goodbye to her boyfriend, gets on a plane in San Francisco and flies cross country to New York to search for her biological father armed with only a few scant clues from her late mother.

By the end of her second day, the wide-eyed 20-year-old is: living in the apartment in which her mother once lived as a young actress, has an understanding female roommate and the name of the man she thinks is her father, is wearing a ball gown and singing at Lincoln Center and has a mysterious and maybe legendary hunk of a guitar player guy tripping all over himself to help her make her way in the big, bad city.

What a fantasy! And what a fabulous narrative it provides for tonight's premiere of "Time of Your Life," the Fox spinoff of "Party of Five," from Peabody Award-winning creators Amy Lippman and Chris Keyser. Now, if only Hewitt's acting style didn't make me want to scream, I could really get into this splendidly written young woman's search-for-identity saga.

In "Party of Five," Hewitt had a limited presence as the girlfriend of Bailey Salinger (Scott Wolf), and she had just about enough range to fill her small ensemble role. But this is a star vehicle with Hewitt onscreen non-stop for 60 minutes. After five minutes, you want to scream, "OK, now that you've done the kind-of-shy-but-can-be-brave ingenue, show us what else you can do as an actress. In fact, here's an idea: Since this is a drama, show us some depth, show us some soul, make me care about you."

The worst aspect of her performance is physical. Maybe it is because her show follows "Ally McBeal" in the Fox lineup, but Hewitt has strangely taken to imitating Calista Flockart in terms of movement.

And so, she's this bundle of awkward, gangly, gawky motion meant to suggest adolescence or even schoolgirl uncertainty. It's the woman-as-little-girl school of acting.

Besides twirling strands of hair around one finger, the basic moves involve holding the cuffs of your oversized sweater sleeves in the palms of your hands and biting your lower lip a lot. An hour of this from another very skinny actress with big eyes and long straight hair is a lot to take. Where's Audrey Hepburn when you need her?

That said -- and believe me, I could go on about how much I dislike Hewitt's performance -- this is a series with the potential to be a big winner for Fox. Lippman and Keyser manage to launch more rich and resonant story elements in one hour than some dramas do in an entire season.

Sarah's journey, with the search for her biological father and the retracing of her mother's footsteps, is made of the stuff that grows in the deepest regions of our collective unconscious.

It might look like Maguire (Johnathan Schaech) -- the great-looking guy who just might be the next Eric Clapton -- is only helping her find a dress for her singing debut as he accompanies her from second-hand store to second-hand store tonight. But, at another level, you are watching a fairy tale play out before your eyes with Cinderella trying on dresses for the ball -- and showing herself off to the prince as she does so.

I love the writing, hate the actress. But I love the writing so much, I'll be back next week. Who knows, maybe Hewitt will grow on me? Hey, here's an idea: Maybe she will even grow as an actress.

Yeah, right.

'Ally McBeal'

How many times have we seen the Fox promo for Ally McBeal having sex with a stranger (Jason Gedrick) in a car wash? Tonight, we finally get the full episode as "Ally McBeal" starts its third season with an hour so obsessed with sex and fantasy that you might start wondering whether David E. Kelley's poor, overworked brain has lost track of the fact that these characters used to occasionally practice law.

The one quasi-legal story line, which finds Ally (Calista Flockhart) trying to save the marriage of the daughter of one of her firm's biggest clients, is little more than a flimsy excuse for more talk of sex and fantasy, in case you didn't see enough in the car wash during the very first few minutes of the episode.

And there's more yet. In a secondary story, Portia (Nelle Porter) wants phone sex, but The Biscuit (Peter MacNicol) can't deliver because he's having a hard time finding his inner Barry White.

All I could think of as I watched is that maybe Kelley has overextended himself. And, with "Snoops" and the half-hour Ally-lite struggling, maybe Kelley, the producer, is having a hard time getting in touch with his inner self, Kelley the writer.

The hour's best moments come in the opening minute. But they have nothing to do with Ally in the car wash. They belong to Vonda Shepard singing "Sweet, Sweet Inspiration" in a way that's anything but sweet.

Tonight's TV

What: "Time of Your Life"

When: 8 to 9

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In a nutshell: Has potential, but it has Hewitt too

What: Season premiere of "Ally McBeal"

When: 9 to 10

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In a nutshell: Creator David E. Kelley stretched too thin?

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