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FROM 'THE PRACTICE' TO 'SNOOPS,' A GREAT LEAP BACKWARD FOR DAVID E. KELLEY

From all the jokes about him on the Emmy Awards, it's understandable that writer-producer David E. Kelley has gone a little buggy.

In more ways -- and series -- than one.

The recurring joke on Emmy night was that Kelley is so prolific, he can write episodes of Best Drama "The Practice" and Best Comedy "Ally McBeal" during a two-minute commercial break.

And in his spare time he's trying to save his older series, "Chicago Hope," which had its promising season premiere Thursday night.

Oh yes, he also created a new ABC series, "Snoops." And he has a new hockey movie with Burt Reynolds that is currently being promoted on television, "Mystery, Alaska." And then there's this Tuesday's season premiere of his half-hour version of "Ally," which includes scenes from the first two seasons.

With so much on his plate, you can't fault Kelley if he gets confused once in a while and forgets what show he is writing for.

Which brings me back to the bugs.

Sunday's compelling season premiere of "The Practice" (10 p.m., Channel 7) is the first of a two-part episode. Titled "Free Dental," it involves bugs and murder.

The introduction of the bugs seems like something you would be more likely to run into on "Ally," which specializes in oddball elements like flying frogs and dancing babies.

It would be unfair to reveal too much about Sunday's opening case, which features guest star Henry Winkler. Just say the old Fonz may be related to "Ally" oddball John Cage.

Winkler plays Henry Olson, a married dentist accused of murdering a patient. He has a secret that he wants to keep hidden from his wife and son and initially keeps from his lawyers, Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) and Jimmy Berlutti (Michael Badalucco).

It's a great role for Winkler, the latest sitcom actor jumping at an opportunity to land in a Kelley series. In seasons past, Tony Danza and John Larroquette expanded their acting stripes in Kelley shows. Who's next? Scott Baio?

The two-parter connects with several stories of the just-concluded Emmy-winning season, enabling Kelley to make effective use of his outstanding ensemble cast.

Is Winkler's character falsely accused, as was Judge Roberta Kittleson (Emmy Award-winning Holland Taylor) last season? You recall she was initially a suspect in the stabbing of Bobby's girlfriend, Lindsay (Kelli Williams), in the season finale.

Does Donnell and his legal staff care if Olson is guilty or are the defense lawyers still willing to get their clients off at any price, no matter the pain to others?

And, oh yes, when will these smart lawyers realize that George Vogelman (Michael Monks), the decapitation expert and murderer they got off, was Lindsay's tormentor, as was revealed in the chilling final scene last season?

As usual, Kelley has put together an involving mystery, with requisite twists and ironies connected to it and the inadequacies of the law continually put on trial.

Taylor and fellow Emmy Award-winner Badalucco get a good deal of screen time. The sad-eyed Berlutti's struggle with his conscience after receiving some secret information is especially powerful, and his reconnection with Judge Kittleson is poignant.

Having to wait until Oct. 2 to see all the twists play out in Part 2 of this story may drive you, well, a little buggy, too.

But the payoff is worth it, with Kelley answering inconsistencies in legal behavior almost as quickly as they arrive.

This isn't to say Kelley is infallible. If you've seen some of his movie failures, you know that.

And now comes a show about bugs -- the illegal technical kind -- and whistles in Sunday's premiere of "Snoops" (9 p.m., Channel 7).

Gina Gershon, Paula Marshall, Danny Nucci, Paula Jai Parker and Edward Kerr star in this light, female buddy drama that will serve as the lead-in to "The Practice."

Unlike Kelley's thinking man and woman series, "Snoops" is about "whistles" like high-tech gadgets, speed photography and 1970s music.

Pony-tailed John Glover plays the suspected villain in the opener, in which detectives Glenn Hall (Gershon) and Dana Plant (Paula Marshall) try to unravel a murder mystery brought to them by an overweight woman who stands to inherit a good deal of money.

Meanwhile, music lover Manny Lott (Nucci) finds time to spy on a philandering husband after he puts recording and television viewing bugs in the murder suspect's home.

Is any of this legal? Probably not. But Kelley isn't as worried about the law in "Snoops" as much as he is in "The Practice."

Gershon and Marshall are pleasant to look at and they have some entertaining snappy exchanges -- comic and otherwise. But unfortunately, the lead "Snoops" case is so uninvolving that you almost don't care if anyone gets away with murder.

In short, the pilot isn't terrible, nor is it terribly entertaining.

Relying much more on style than on substance, "Snoops" is so far removed from the quality of "The Practice" that you almost wonder if Kelley did write it in between commercial breaks.

Ratings: "The Practice": 4 1/2 stars out of 5.

"Snoops": 2 1/2 stars.

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