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'Ally McBeal' dances back on new DVD

HOLLYWOOD — After the gavel came down on Fox's legal comedy series "Ally McBeal" in 2002, the Emmy Award-winning show didn't go into rerun heaven. And only the first season even saw the light of day on DVD.

But now "Ally McBeal" is back. The entire five seasons of the series revolving around a Boston trial attorney (Calista Flockhart) who had a rich fantasy life and a penchant for miniskirts arrived in a DVD set Tuesday from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The set also features several featurettes, a retrospective and the "Best of Ally McBeal" soundtrack featuring the show's Vonda Shepard.

Series creator David E. Kelley says the reason for the DVD delay was the same problem that in the past has delayed the release of other series, such as "thirtysomething" and "WKRP in Cincinnati": music rights.

"All our licensing wasn't in perpetuity," he says. "It just created a huge thicket of problems."

"Ally McBeal" became a water-cooler show after its premiere on Fox on Sept. 8, 1997, mixing comedy, drama, music and fantasy — including Ally's frequent sightings of an imaginary dancing baby.

"One of the genesis ideas of the series was a character we saw inside and outside — and the two behaviors may not always reconcile," Kelley says. "Internally, she feels and thinks about things in a different way. I needed the voice-over and the fantasy sequences because I always wanted it to be more visual than other series I had been on."

Kelley was a veteran of "L.A. Law," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "Picket Fences," "Chicago Hope" and had started working on "The Practice" when then-Fox President Peter Roth asked him to do a series for the network.

"I was doing 'The Practice' at ABC at the time, and I didn't want to take on another show at the same time," Kelley recalls, "but he was persuasive and emphatic and convinced me to do this."

Besides Flockhart, the show also starred Gil Bellows as Billy, her former lover who is the star litigator at the Boston law firm of Cage/Fish & Associates; Courtney Thorne-Smith as Billy's wife and co-worker; Greg Germann and Peter MacNicol as the firm's lead partners; and Jane Krakowski as Ally's nosy assistant.

Bellows, who stayed with the series three seasons, says there was a "creative alchemy" on the show that was magical: "The quality of the writing and the crew, the team that made it work behind the cameras and the actors and guest stars — everybody seemed to be really talented and doing wonderful work."

Kelley's confidence in his vision, says Bellows, made working on the show "really liberating for us performers to do our job. There was always excitement when the week's script came. In a way, what David did was, he created a mold and broke one simultaneously."

Shepard appeared in almost every episode singing in the firm's favorite bar tunes that seemed to reflect that week's story line.

She was a struggling New York musician when cast and happened to be a longtime friend of Kelley's wife, Michelle Pfeiffer.

Kelley recalls going to see Shepard in concert with Pfeiffer while writing the pilot.

"She did a song, 'Wildest Times of the World,' and when she was singing it, it just hit me that this woman and this voice was it — the musical voice of Ally."