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'The Practice' and 'Ally' are still crossing paths

When producer David E. Kelley created a crossover between his two legal series -- "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" -- this past spring, executives at a good number of Fox affiliates pretty much threw hissy fits.

At the time, the two shows both aired on Monday nights. And the episode of "Ally McBeal" on Fox led right into the episode of "The Practice" on ABC. Of course, "The Practice" was also in direct competition with the late newscasts on many Fox stations, thus the hissy fits.Fox network programmers immediately announced that such a thing would never, ever happen again. That it was a one-time-only thing.

Which, of course, was not true. The crossovers have continued, albeit with considerably less publicity -- and, since "The Practice" has moved to Sundays, they've been considerably less direct.

And, until this week, there have been more "Ally" references on "The Practice" than there have been "Practice" references on "Ally."

Two Sundays ago, Lucy (Marla Sokoloff), the firm's receptionist, appeared wearing a weird device attached to her head -- a device that had mistletoe hanging from it. She told Bobby (Dylan McDermott) that it was an invention of "my friend Elaine."

Elaine, of course, would be Ally McBeal's secretary (Jane Krakowski), who is always coming up with some sort of weird invention. (Remember the face bra?)

And this past Sunday, Rebecca (Lisa Gay Hamilton) was reciting a list of all the women Bobby has kissed, including "the whiny one in the short skirt." (Which was Ally, of course.)

This week's episode of "Ally" featured a brief appearance by Lara Flynn Boyle as Helen Gamble, the character she plays on "The Practice." Ally (Calista Flockhart) and Helen ran into each other in an elevator at the Boston courthouse.

Helen gave Ally a long look, staring at her mini skirt. "I was just admiring your outfit," Helen said.

At which point Kelley acknowledged the ongoing controversy over Flockhart's weight -- or lack thereof.

"Maybe you could eat a cookie," Helen suggested.

"Maybe we could share," Ally replied.

(And, indeed, Boyle is no heavyweight herself.)

But the episode took a truly bizarre turn in a subsequent scene. Ally arrived at her apartment to discover the television was on. And the show that was blaring off the set was "The Practice" -- the sequence in which the lawyers discovered that their client had a severed head in his medical bag.

That's just plain weird. One moment, a character from "The Practice" is part of "Ally McBeal's" world as a real person. The next, "The Practice" is a TV show in "Ally's" world.

Despite the crossovers -- and the fact that Kelley writes most episodes of both series -- the two shows are very different. And the two shows seem to be headed in different directions.

"The Practice" just keeps getting better -- it is now, arguably, the best show on television.

The characters are well-drawn, the acting is superior, the writing is great, there are enough plot twists to keep things interesting and the writing raises questions that don't have easy answers. "The Practice" can make you think while it's entertaining you.

"Ally McBeal," on the other hand, is making you think that it has forgotten the formula that made the show a break-out success in its first season. Instead of being a moderately off-kilter drama with comedic elements, the show has become a wildly off-kilter comedy with dramatic elements.

It's still an entertaining show. But it has fallen victim to the can-you-top-this? syndrome -- a show that looks for quirkier and quirkier ways of doing things, and goes into orbit with strangeness.

"The Practice" looks set for a long run. But you can't help wondering if "Ally McBeal" isn't going to be one of those shows that bursts on the scene and then burns out after a couple of seasons.