‘Ally McBeal’ brings law but not necessarily order to affairs of the heart

Long before she stole the heart of Han Solo, Calista Flockhart was alternately fascinating and frightening off men on “Ally McBeal” (1997-2002). On the David E. Kelley creation, she played the title character, a 28-year-old lawyer at the fictional Boston law firm, Cage, Fish and Associates, with a penchant for wearing short skirts and firing off verbal volleys that failed in the courtroom just as often as they succeeded. The show itself—a concoction of romance, comedy, drama and legal proceedings—was dizzyingly zany as well, taking place in a firm with a unisex public bathroom where lawyers, secretaries and clients habitually flirted, dated or had a romantic past with each other. And I loved every minute of it.

At the time the show aired, I was in college majoring in English and minoring in Women’s Studies. I remember the June 1998 Time magazine cover story featuring Ally with three pioneering feminists and asking, “Is feminism dead?” Some TV critics and feminists looked down upon the character and considered her particularly demeaning to professional women because of her erratic behavior and emotional instability.

“Ally McBeal” regularly dealt in the absurd. That was part of its appeal. You never knew if it would make you laugh or cry or both. And despite the madcap humor and reliance on its characters’ eccentricities, the show had a lot of truth to its premise. Single, independent women who want to achieve just as much satisfaction in their personal life as they do in their career get increasingly dismayed by the delay and difficulty in obtaining happiness, and the stakes only get higher as they grow older. They will stumble and fall in their search for love, much like Ally literally did on many episodes.

While depicting all the trials and tribulations of romantic entanglements—and utilizing vivid fantasy sequences for characters’ wishful thinking, most notably the dancing baby—“Ally McBeal” always retained a hopeful air. Instead of viewing the men Ally dated—Billy (Gil Bellows), Dr. Greg Butters (Jesse L. Martin), Larry Paul (Robert Downey Jr.) and Victor Morrison (Jon Bon Jovi), among others—as a parade of failed relationships through five seasons, I see them as her refusal to give up on love or compromise on what she wanted.

I’ve waited seven years until the DVD release of “Ally McBeal: The Complete Series” (available for $99.99 on Amazon.com with all the original music intact, according to Fox). Once again I can inhabit the world occupied by Richard Fish (Greg Germann), John Cage (Peter MacNicol) and the delightfully acerbic Ling Woo (Lucy Liu). And what a charmingly whimsical world it is—one where you can run into a former or potential love interest right around the corner.


2 Responses to “‘Ally McBeal’ brings law but not necessarily order to affairs of the heart”

  1. I have to tell you, I absolutely LOVED Ally McBeal in high school. Calista Flockhart was great, but I came back to the show week after week for Lucy Liu and Portia De Rossi. Their characters were gorgeous, sassy, and knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it. I had the hugest teenage crush on them.

    How do you feel Ally McBeal compares to Sex in the City? I think the parallels are pretty obvious. What’s interests me about SITC is the never-ending emotional dependence of those women on men, despite all their financial independence. Every episode consisted of these incredibly successful women talking about nothing else but the men in their lives.

  2. Dawn Raftery Says:

    Roland, I originally started watching “Ally McBeal” because of Calista Flockhart and my love of legal shows, but eventually I was tuning in because of the other interesting female characters, particularly those played by Lucy Liu and Portia de Rossi. Lucy Liu especially made me laugh because she was so snarky and politically incorrect. And her character had a romantic past with Taye Diggs, who I had a crush on when I was younger.

    I prefer “Sex and the City” because it’s a more honest, grown-up and, to put it gently, rawer version of Ally McBeal’s look at love and relationships. Yes, the four women on SATC were obsessed with men and dating, but that’s part of what made the show appealing to women. It’s a show about women, written from the female perspective. Many of my female friends and I can compare situations in our life to something Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte or Samantha went through. And despite the sometimes absurd scenes and reliance on fashion as a fifth character (another reason why I loved the show), there were some serious issues addressed on the show, from the stigma and difficulties Miranda encountered buying property on her own, despite being financially capable of doing so, to Carrie’s married-with-children friend trying to make her, the quintessential single girl, feel guilty that she spends $400 on a pair of shoes.

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