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TIGHTER 'ALLY' IS FUN, MORE COHERENT

Calista's face, Calista's face, Calista's face.

That was the mantra that "Ally McBeal" creator David E. Kelley sang to the group that created the opening credits for the Emmy Award-winning comedy three years ago.

The opening montage had star Calista Flockhart's face in various expressive poses, though eventually her co-stars were given more screen time in the credits.

Kelley's Emmy speech in September after "Ally" was named Best Comedy pretty much summed up his feelings about his star. He said that all any writer had to do to win an Emmy was to hire Flockhart to speak his or her words.

It was a very humble statement. Flockhart may help Kelley's dialogue sing, but his words are more than equal co-stars.

And now he has sold Fox on a new concept -- repackaging the episodes from the first two seasons as a new half-hour series called "Ally" (8 tonight, Channel 29).

It may sound as goofy as any idea of John Cage's (Peter Mac-Nichol), but the networks and the Hollywood producers who supply their shows are looking for all sorts of creative ways to save money. Besides, the chances that Fox would be able to find a new sitcom half as good as "Ally" to put on Tuesday are about equal to the chances that the Philadelphia Eagles will win the Super Bowl.

"Ally" and Fox is just the most obvious marriage in this new creative way of saving money and reducing risk. This season, a new episode of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is being carried 13 days later on cable's USA. And an episode of ABC's "Once and Again" is being carried once and again three days later on Lifetime, which is co-owned by ABC.

Repackaging "Ally" isn't a bad idea. Indeed, Kelley's original pilot was a presentation that was about 15 minutes short of the 45 minutes of film needed for an hour episode.

Kelley had to expand the presentation into a full hour. Now he is condensing the hour that he had to expand.

And what Kelley is doing now is focusing primarily on Calista's face, Calista's face, Calista's face again. And adding some previously shot but unaired scenes and more music from songstress Vonda Shepard, who didn't get an opening credit to go along with Ally's theme song, "Searching My Soul," until the second season.

Fox didn't send along tonight's premiere of "Ally." Called "Once in a Lifetime," the repackaging of the Feb. 23, 1998, episode deals with Ally's hesitancy toward going out on a first date with Cage.

However, Fox did send three later episodes that illuminate what Kelley and Fox are trying to do.

Essentially, the main story concerning Ally in an hourlong program that ran earlier is pulled out and augmented with new scenes, while the extraneous oddball elements involving her law partners and co-workers are deleted.

Most likely, fans who weren't first attracted to "Ally" until the middle of the first season or later will enjoy the 30-minute condensation.

And "Ally McBeal" fans won't see an original Monday episode until the baseball playoffs are over in late October, so they may need their weekly fix until then.

In the first of three episodes sent along, "The Promise" (Oct. 27, 1998), Ally saves -- and then ruins -- the life of an overweight lawyer. He follows her romantic advice, which we all know by now isn't a good idea.

In the second episode, "100 Tears Away" (Oct. 20, 1998), Ally's mental fitness as a lawyer is questioned after she intentionally kicks a woman after a supermarket argument over a bag of potato chips.

In the third episode, "Fools' Night Out" (Sept. 28, 1998), a minister's decision to drop his girlfriend in the choir makes Ally re-examine her past with old boyfriend Billy (Gil Bellows). And it isn't a pretty picture.

Each episode has something to say about romance and loneliness, the twin issues in Ally's life that helped put her on the cover of Time magazine a while back as a representative of the new feminism.

In the world according to Ally: "Sometimes the worst thing for somebody's heart could be loneliness."

Or: "I'm human, I'm temperamental, I am guilty, and I'm ovulating."

The new half-hour episodes also have plenty of music, with Jennifer Holliday ("Dreamgirls") belting out some songs in the third episode to augment Shepard's tunes.

Though cast members from both seasons are in the opening credits, make no mistake. This series is more about Ally than anyone else. And we all know that Ally thinks everything is about her anyway.

And with Calista's face, what's wrong with that?

My cynicism that this is just a money grab designed to get Flockhart a raise or Kelley a bigger paycheck was beaten down by the third episode.

Call me crazy, but the shorter versions of "Ally" seem less padded, more coherent and, incredibly, sometimes even more fun than the original hour versions.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Remember John Pauly, the former Channel 2 and Channel 7 investigative reporter?

He has been hired as an off-camera investigative producer for ABC's "2 0/2 0." He will produce most of his pieces with correspondent Chris Wallace.

"It's an opportunity to work with adults again," said Pauly, whose last job was as a producer for the syndicated series "Real TV."

Because of the current labor strife that finds engineers and technicans locked out, Channel 4 canceled the Saturday and Sunday editions of its popular morning program, "Wake Up." The program resumed at 5 a.m. Monday.

NBC, thought to be vulnerable on Thursdays this season, rode "Friends" to a huge first-week victory. It outrated CBS, ABC and Fox combined in the age 18-to-49 demographic that advertisers love. And No. 1 "ER" was delayed a week to allow its clone, "Third Watch," to premiere in its time slot. "Friends" had an incredible 53 percent share of the age 18-to-34 audience and 44 percent share of the 18-to-49 audience.

But there was some bad news for NBC. The revamped "Jesse" lost a significant portion of the "Friends" audience, and the premiere of the mediocre new comedy "Stark Raving Mad" slipped severely from its "Frasier" lead-in.

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