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It's television as a halfway house. Robert Downey Jr., regarded by many in Hollywood as the best American film actor of his generation, has gone directly from prison to a starring role in Ally McBeal ( Fox/CTV, Mon., 9 p.m.). With his parole board's blessing, and to the regret of star-struck lifers everywhere, Downey has cut short his three-year sentence for drug offences to soothe his troubled soul as Calista Flockhart's latest love interest.

As rehab stints go, it can't be worse than doing time in the California state penal system. And what's good for Downey's erratic career can't help but be an improvement for the equally troubled Ally.

This is a series that captivated critics when it sprang fully formed from David E. Kelley's fertile mind in 1997, and as recently as last year was an Emmy-winner for best comedy -- a rare feat for an hour-long series without punchlines or a laugh track.

This year Ally couldn't even get nominated. The slide into silliness was apparent even to Emmy voyers, who have a tendency to put off recognizing mediocrity when it comes from a big name like Kelley. But there was no denying Ally's steep decline: The series about a woman trying to reconcile her professional life as a Boston lawyer with her inner doubts and urges had turned into a never-ending parade of dumb tricks and gimmicky neuroses. Dance sequences in the law firm's unisex toilet, John Cage's nervous nose whistle, Ally's carwash sex fantasy, the lesbian-kiss episode, the death and ghostly reappearance of the lovelorn Billy -- every episode proclaimed that Ally had lost its way.

The usual excuses were made for Kelley: that he had divided up his genius too many ways. At one point last season he had five shows on the go, and was negotiating with Fox on his new series, Boston Public. But Ally McBeal was the series that suffered the most -- it's almost unparalleled in TV history for a show to go from being a critics' darling to being a joke in such a short time.

Kelley doesn't admit his mistakes easily -- any faults with Ally, he believes, come from his being overambitious in a conservative environment where critics and viewers don't like daring. He's wrong, of course. The fault comes not just from his overextending himself, but from becoming so important a figure that no one would tell him his first draft was no good.

Fortunately, the arrival of Downey to play Flockhart's new guy provides an instant change of course that's much easier to accept. In Monday's episode, Downey brings, dare one say, sanity and stability to a series that has been revelling in inane nuttiness.

His presence is brief but far more striking than anything else in the show. Messed up yet again in her relationship with an uptight Englishman (Tim Dutton), Ally instinctively runs to her therapist (which, by the way, is a reminder of how self-centred this character has become). But the bullying, deranged shrink played by Tracey Ullman has moved on. In her place is a bespectacled Downey, who turns on Flockhart from the moment she arrives.

It's only a few minutes in an hour-long show that still falls back on the nose whistle as its preferred idée fixe. But the best thing about Downey is that he behaves like a real man, refusing to give in to Ally's self-indulgent whining. The California prisons teach their students well.


The Nature of Things. Producer David Zuckerprot has written and directed this timely episode on cross-species transplants. As usual, the ethical warnings lag far behind the advances in medical techniques driven by the desire for instant cures and the profits they can bring. ( CBC, 8 p.m.) Chris Giannou. The intense, no-nonsense Canadian doctor talks about his work in refugee camps. ( Vision, 9 p.m.) Talk Shows The Bottom Line with Michael Vaughan. Hockey-player-turned-agent Mike Gillis on the business of representing players. ( ROBTv at 6 p.m.) CounterSpin with Avi Lewis. The U.S. election: Is a Nader vote a wasted vote? (CBC Newsworld at 8 p.m. ET.) Open Mike with Mike Bullard. Hugh Dillon, Jason McCoy, Richard Marx ( Comedy Network at 10 p.m., CTV at 12:05 a.m.) Jon Stewart. Brendan Fraser. ( Comedy Network at 11 p.m.) David Letterman. George W. Bush, James Brown. ( CBS at 11:35 p.m.) Jay Leno. Calista Flockhart, Everlast. ( NBC at 11:35 p.m.) Bill Maher. Jeff Bridges, Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, Rod Lurie. ( ABC at 12:05 a.m.) Conan O'Brien. Dana Carvey, Tommy Davidson. ( NBC at 12:35 a.m.) Dates and times may vary across the country. Please check local listings.