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NEW FACES BOOST 'BOSTON PUBLIC'

School is finally in session tonight at "Boston Public" (8 p.m, Channel 29) and the David E. Kelley series about unorthodox high school teachers gets a very satisfactory grade.

The long-awaited season premiere has the same plusses and minuses of the first season. While its teachers tend to be outrageous exaggerations, the subjects that Kelley addresses are often very real and meaningful.

Harry Senate (Nicky Katt) is still Harry, a passionate teacher who tries to get through to his problem students by any means necessary even if it is likely to get him in hot water with principal Steven Harper (Chi McBride) and some clueless parents.

Harvey Lipschultz (Fyvush Finkel) is still Harvey, an old teacher so exasperated by today's students that he has lapsed into calling them PG-13 names.

Marla Hendricks (Loretta Devine) is still Marla, a sensitive teacher who can be insensitive to others. Tonight, she turns defensive on some overweight students who want her to be the adviser to an organization for overweight girls.

If there's one minor disappointment, it is that there isn't enough for Lauren Davis (Jessalyn Gilsig) to do, but she was overwhelmed with so many problems last year that she could probably use a little rest.

Of course, the start of the school year wouldn't be special if there weren't some new teachers with new issues. Kelley introduces two compelling characters and a third who has possibilities tonight.

Jeri Ryan, the sexy actress from "Star Trek: Voyager," probably will make as favorable an impression on many viewers as she does on Vice Principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald).

Ryan stars as Ronnie Cooke, a corporate lawyer and friend of Harry's who comes to school to talk to his class and talks herself into changing professions. Her decision shocks her ex-boyfriend, Michael Baskin (Billy Zane of "Titanic" fame), who won't go away even after they break up. You can hardly blame him.

Ronnie's epiphany and decision to abandon her six-figure income come a little quickly, but remember this is TV. And David E. Kelley TV at that.

The second new teacher, Danny Hanson (Michael Rapaport), also comes with guns blazing. The English teacher's mouth is his weapon. And it never closes, even when students ask him some questions about a sensitive topic that was best handled by "Seinfeld" in a famous episode. Danny doesn't always think before he speaks, which makes his ramblings all the more interesting.

The third new character is a smart science teacher, Dr. Benjamin Harris (Leslie Jordan), who apparently doesn't have a suspicious bone in his body.

The new characters of Ronnie and Danny should help mix things up throughout the season, since neither really has to worry about how they behave. Ronnie can always go back to law and Danny can become a regular contributor on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect."

Oh, did I forget something? The demanding mother, Mrs. Peters (Kathy Baker), tied up in the basement by her extremely bright son in last season's finale?

I can't tell you what happens, except to say it is so creepy that this episode probably should have aired on Halloween. It isn't resolved until the end, but things move so quickly before that it's doubtful many people will mind. Let's just say that you have to hand it to Kelley -- he certainly came up with an interesting twist.

Kelley also introduces four new characters in the disappointing season premiere of his other Fox series, "Ally McBeal" (9 tonight, Channel 29).

In the opener, Ally (Calista Flockhart) literally runs into someone just like her, an eccentric single female lawyer, Jenny Shaw (Julianna Nicholson), who has just broken up with her handsome boyfriend.

After they bond over their love of scooters, Ally decides to hire Jenny and returns to the office to discover that Richard Fish (Greg Germann) has hired Jenny's ex-boyfriend, Glenn Foy (James Marsden, who is more handsome than Gil Bellows, who played Ally's ex-boyfriend, Billy).

The similarities between Ally's old life and her new best friend's life might send anyone to a therapist. Ally's new shrink (John Michael Higgins) is as strange as the previous ones she's encountered, but he's pretty dry and hardly as entertaining as Tracey Ullman.

The other two new characters aren't given much to do in the opener. And other than John Cage (Peter MacNichol) in a recycled situation that isn't resolved, the regulars aren't used effectively.

The only thing I really liked about the premiere is the legal case presented.

The case finds Ally's new best friend filing a class action suit for 72,000 clients who are so angry because of all the nuisance calls that they receive from phone companies at dinner time that they decide to go to court.

I'd join the suit in the minute, though I think Jerry Seinfeld figured out how to best handle such calls. You may recall the "Seinfeld" episode in which he got a nuisance call during dinner. He asked the caller for his phone number and promised to call the caller back later.

If Jerry is one of Jenny's 72,000 clients, then I might tune in again to see how it ends. But when you are more interested in the law than the romance, well, then, "Ally McBeal," really isn't working.

Down the road, Elton John and Mariah Carey stop by to perform in the "Ally" bar. And actor-singer Jon Bon Jovi is scheduled to appear in nine episodes. So perhaps he can do what Robert Downey Jr. did last season -- make "Ally" really sing again.

Ratings: "Boston Public": 3 1/2 stars out of 4

"Ally McBeal": 2 stars

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