Meet the Ally-Come-Latelies

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Give David E. Kelley credit for one thing: he's the one male producer in Hollywood not willing to cede gender issues to women. Judging by girls club (Fox, Mondays, 9 p.m. E.T.), his button-pushing-women-lawyers follow-up to his button-pushing-woman-lawyer serial Ally McBeal (canceled last season), we will have to pry gender issues from his cold, dead fingers.

As on Ally, the focus is on matters professional and romantic — here, about new attorneys Lynne (Gretchen Mol), Jeannie (Kathleen Robertson) and Sarah (Chyler Leigh). As on Ally, we see a high-priced law firm, eccentric cases and characters with nicknames like "the Worm." But don't think Kelley is only out to cannibalize Ally. He's also out to give feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon a heart attack. Why else open the pilot with Lynne rehearsing opening arguments in the middle of the night in her skimpy jammies? Or run opening credits while the friends jog, put on makeup, do the stationary bike — everything but have a pillow fight? Reese Witherspoon was more credible in Legally Blonde.

O.K., we get it: girls club (it's lowercase, so it's art!) says that feminism today is about both power and femininity. So does The Powerpuff Girls, but it's easier to walk the line between girl-positive feminism and silliness with little-girl superheroes than with grownup lawyers dressed like Britney Spears circa 1999. More problematic, girls club is so self-consciously about, y'know, women's stuff that almost every story defines the characters in terms of gender: Jeannie gets sexually harassed, Lynne is accused of infatuation with a male client, Sarah blurts out an anti-lesbian slur. Lest you miss the X chromosomity of it all, Jeannie even sues on behalf of a woman whose ob-gyn passes out face first into her during an exam.

Throw as many darts as Kelley does, and you will occasionally hit a target. The show is sharpest when it looks at the rift between young women and era-era feminists, represented by vicious, condescending lawyer Meredith (Lisa Banes), a.k.a. "the Praying Mantis." "What chance does feminism have in this sweat hole when the strong women become like [the men]?" Lynne asks, referring to her older, Type A colleague. Meredith is a harpy who spits her lines like Cruella De Vil, though she hints that she's more complicated. There's the kernel of an interesting story here, about young women who are just starting out and have some growing up to do. Too bad Kelley can't make the same excuse.