After Ally McBeal captured the zeitgeist, Robert Downey Jr. found the show’s heart

After Ally McBeal captured the zeitgeist, Robert Downey Jr. found the show’s heart

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The next six installments focus on episodes with musical sequences.

“’Tis The Season” (Ally McBeal, season four, episode six; originally aired 11/27/2000)
Phil Dyess-Nugent: Caring too much about popular culture can lead you down some funny side roads. For example: I was never a fan of Ally McBeal. This was a potentially loaded thing to say in the late ’90s, when the show was hot, zeitgeist television. People talked about this show, argued about it, celebrated its innovate techniques and its surrealistic flights, blamed it for the crisis in feminism. My problems were related to the fact that I am not, as a rule, a fan of its progenitor and principal writer, David E. Kelley. I liked Kelley’s work on L.A. Law and on The Practice, when he stuck to serious courtroom drama without a whoopee cushion. And I actually love one of his nutball shows, Boston Legal, which benefited from a couple of leading men—James Spader and William Shatner—who looked as if they were not only in on the joke but eager to improve upon it. But whenever I’d see one of those panels of TV critics on The Charlie Rose Show talking about how unbelievably creative Kelley was, marveling at how he sat down with a yellow legal pad and wrote all those dozens upon dozens of scripts for Ally McBeal and Picket Fences all by himself, I’d just sit there thinking that this feat would be more impressive if he’d ever written a second draft of anything.

Even though it continued for another full season, Ally McBeal had pretty much passed its peak water-cooler period by the time of its fourth year. The ’90s were over, and pretty soon, we’d be too busy debating the efficacy of waterboarding to care about the love lives of twee yuppie scum. But it was at this time that Ally McBeal became appointment television in my stinking post-graduate hovel, because of Kelley’s brave and inspired decision to hire Robert Downey Jr. to play Larry, the most indelible of Ally’s love interests. 

Some context may be needed here: In the late ’80s and ’90s, Robert Downey Jr. was one of the most brilliant and excitingly unpredictable actors on the scene. Today, he is Mr. Movie Star. But his run on Ally McBeal coincided with a period when, because of his drug problems and multiple arrests, he was just this side of being unemployable in the movie business. (Around the time this episode aired, Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse series on Comedy Central ran a cartoon in which Downey was depicted as part of a team of tabloid-trainwrecks-turned-detectives. His specialty was breaking into houses and falling asleep.) In the end, his role on the show was truncated, and he was written out toward the end of the season after he was stopped by the cops again. (The season, as originally planned, was supposed to end with Ally and Larry’s wedding.) Downey won a Golden Globe—and a lot of praise—for his work on the show, and his presence helped shore up its sliding ratings, but he was at his lowest ebb professionally when he was fired, and he’s now dismissive of his work here. 

He’s wrong; he’s beautiful on Ally McBeal, and provides it with a glowing, romantic center and a core of pain that’s very touching. And he brings out the best in Calista Flockhart, a talented comic actress who can be very moving when she’s yearning for the right partner, but who can become vague and blurry when she doesn’t have something solid to focus on. (And David E. Kelley’s best friend in the world would never call him a master of focus.)

This is the Christmas episode, so the pained, mournful undercurrent Downey brings to his character—who’s been dating Ally for all of a couple of episodes—take center stage. He says he doesn’t like Christmas. Ally, who naturally loves it, thinks he’s just being an old Grinch, and goes so far as to say that she’s not sure she could marry a man who doesn’t share her warm feelings for the holiday. Again: They’ve been dating a couple of episodes. Not trying to get bogged down in this, but still—down, girl! Larry has offered a few reasons for his Santa-hate, but they’re like something on a jocular pet peeves list: There’s too much cholesterol in eggnog, the tree is a fire hazard. Now, alone with Ally in front of the TV watching Miracle On 34th Street, he lets slip that he has a 7-year-old son. He never sees him anymore, though, because he lives in Detroit with his mom. Oh, says Ally, who knew that Larry used to be married, I thought your ex-wife lived here in Boston. Yeah, says Larry, she does.

A lot happens quickly here. Ally and Larry are at a stage in their relationship where they’re just frisking along, oblivious to all the things they may not know about each other. But at the same time, they have such a great rapport, and each finds the other so attractive, that either of them might be forgiven for fantasizing that this person could be The One; after all, reasons to think anything else have scarcely begun to pile up. But now Ally is beginning to get a sense of how much life Larry has had before they met, and after their fun little sparring about the pros and cons of Christmas, she’s receiving her first clear signals that the attractive melancholy that goes with his lightness—which, by itself, only suggests that there’s some depth there—is just the visible part of some deep, deep pain that she can’t assuage. 

The worst is yet to come: Larry has been great with Ally’s work friends, giving Jane Krakowski’s Elaine a pep talk about how she ought to sing a song in the local watering hole; he likes to noodle at the piano when he’s feeling down. Ally thinks he means that he likes to sing peppy songs and cheer himself up, and when it’s just her and him and a piano, she makes a right ass of herself, trying to get him to get into the spirit of the season and sing “Jingle Bells.” He plays along like a champ. But then she excuses herself, and when she comes back, he’s singing Joni Mitchell’s “River,” the one that starts out like “Jingle Bells” before turning into a song about holiday depression brought on by guilt and shame, building to the line, “I made my baby cry.” Flockhart has a lovely moment, just watching him and listening, and realizing that somewhere inside this charming, delightful man, he’s always in despair. And Downey is phenomenal. I say that even though I don’t really like his singing. It’s overblown and lurching, like someone playing Robert Plant in the shower. (Have you heard his ballad collection, The Futurist? Mother of God.) But he acts singing the song, and that puts it across, getting everything possible out of it emotionally.

People expressing themselves (and courting and attracting others) through singing is a recurring motif in this episode. Krakowski finally wins a date with James LeGros’ character after she belts out “Tomorrow,” and there’s a big buildup to seeing the nerdy lawyer John Cage (Peter MacNicol) impress a girl he likes (and her mom) by taking the stage dressed as if he were about to ascend into the heavens in a flying car with Olivia Newton-John and doing his version of what he calls a “rock ’n’ roll” song. (The women love it, thank Christ.) But the best you can say about most of these clown antics is that they provide a context for the moments when Larry, alone with Ally, uses singing to share feelings with her that he can’t comfortably express by just speaking. It happens again at the end: Trying to please her, he sings “White Christmas,” only to choke up when he gets to the part about children listening to hear sleigh bells in the snow. But she’s prepared by now, and knowing what’s eating him, is able to cushion his fall. It gives you hope.

I feel as if I should apologize for having gone on at such length about an episode that I basically love for one scene, built around a musical performance that I wouldn’t want to watch stripped of its dramatic context. I am curious to learn if there are any Ally McBeal fanatics in the house, and to hear what they think of Downey’s place in that sprawling universe. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am about the show itself. It would also do wonders for my self-image to hear that I’m not the only person who always cries like a baby whenever he watches this sucker. And may all your Christmases be bright.

Ryan McGee: I managed to miss most of Ally McBeal when it originally aired, with the pop-culture focus on dancing babies so laser-like that I ran as far away from the zeitgeist as possible. So this was the first time I sat down to watch this episode, even though I was well aware of Robert Downey Jr.’s run on the show at the time it was happening. I pretty much had anything better to do at the time than jump into this show. Having seen it now, I’ll say this: It’s one of the best Glee episodes I’d never seen.

Glee is a show that’s as maddeningly inconsistent in tone and quality as Ally McBeal, but both have the ability to occasionally mine such deep veins of emotional truth that it can be difficult to write off either entirely. I found everything perfectly fine, if bland and semi-screechy, up until Larry sings “River,” at which point this was suddenly the alpha and omega of everything relevant to my life. I’m a sucker for a song like that, because it’s the first example in this iteration of the Roundtable of why musicals work so well for me: They provide an opportunity for characters to sing what they feel when simply saying it won’t do. It’s not about people wanting to sing. It’s about them needing to sing. “River” doesn’t directly express everything Larry feels about the son he never sees, and yet it sums up the yearning, heartache, and melancholy that the Christmas season in particular dregs up on an annual basis for him. It’s not a flawless moment. But the flaws on display make it an incredibly powerful one all the same.

I tend to ultimately prefer shows that are more consistent on a weekly basis (or, hell, on a scene-by-scene basis), but I love shows that march to the beat of their own drummers. Solid execution can be overrated, especially when the adventurousness leads to a moment like the one described above. Singing itself is a risky business, since it reveals the core of one’s character far more effectively/ruthlessly than mere soliloquy. (Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “Once More With Feeling” explores that idea better than just about any example on- or off-Broadway.) To sing is to risk exposure. To sing is to open oneself up to the world at large. To sing is to open oneself up to ridicule. But every once in a while, to sing is to let someone in. There may not have been another way to present that connection. And those moments are ones to cherish.

Todd VanDerWerff: I come to praise Calista Flockhart.

Now, now. I know that she became part and parcel of what people so hated about this show—and it could be endlessly, inventively hateable. But I always thought Flockhart was something special as Ally, and the only reason this damn thing worked as well as it did when it did. Ryan’s comparison of the show to Glee helped me realize that David E. Kelley’s career started to slide downhill right around the time Ryan Murphy saw a plastic surgery outfit, turned his head sideways to look more closely, then said, “Innnnnnnnteresting.” But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention here that I was a big-time Kelley fanboy back in the mid-’90s, when I put way too much stock in the writings of Ken Tucker and Mike Hughes, the only two TV critics I routinely had access to. (This is not to besmirch Tucker or Hughes, who are both stand-up guys, but deciding your critical consensus consists of two people is rarely the best course of action.) Hughes was a major Kelley fan, and Tucker at least seemed to like him most of the time, so I was a David E. Kelley fan, too.

At least some of that was genuine. The way the guy worked social issues into episodes of Picket Fences that started out as stories about robbers who left frogs at the scene of their crimes, then abruptly turned them into stories about post-traumatic stress disorder—well, that impressed the hell out of 13-year-old me, who thought this all incredible, weighty storytelling. If you get me drunk enough, I’ll still extol the virtues of that show, as well as The Practice and Chicago Hope and, yes, Ally McBeal. (Actually, get me really drunk and we can talk the wild implausibility that was Boston Public, one of the goofiest shows to somehow run four seasons.) Now, all of these shows have Kelley’s gigantic flaws well in evidence, and the man has never met a quirky moment he didn’t want to force the audience to love, but damned if he can’t come up with two things: 1) unexpectedly emotional moments and 2) fun banter. Or, rather, damned if he couldn’t do that at the height of his talent. (This was really a throwback to the days of guys like Stirling Silliphant and Rod Serling, when TV writers would slap a bunch of stuff on a page and hope it hung together and usually be right—though, suffice to say, Kelley is no Silliphant and certainly no Serling.)

All of which brings me back to Flockhart. To be perfectly honest, much of my love for her performance may have to do with the intersection of this series with the 16- to 17-year-old version of me, who looked at Ally McBeal and saw the sort of fast-talking dame he’d long hoped to meet in real life. But I still think Flockhart might be the De Niro to Kelley’s Scorsese, the actor who best brings out the particular tones of what he’s going for. (It’s either her or Mandy Patinkin, and God knows how much of whatever Patinkin was doing on Chicago Hope was Kelley.) The scenes between Flockhart and Downey just drip with sexual chemistry, and the two often aren’t doing anything. There was a popular argument going around at the time that Ally had found its way back to the top of the heap during this season—and almost all of that was due to Downey—but a small portion of it was how alive Flockhart seemed in his presence. I would have watched a Kelley-scripted show about these two adorable kids getting into scrapes for several seasons. (And I’ll agree with you, Phil, that this season, rather than the more zeitgeist-defining first two seasons, was the show’s best.)

But this episode is the height of that, and it makes me remember that Downey was once a romantic leading man more than an action star. And it really makes me miss that guy.

Noel Murray: We—meaning Donna and I, newlyweds at the time—watched Ally McBeal faithfully in our tiny post-graduate apartment, for about two and a half seasons, before it got too silly for us and we bailed. (We were always more into The Practice, before that got too silly, too.) So I’d never actually seen this episode, and was surprised by how calm it seemed in comparison to the rampant nuttiness of the seasons that preceded it. Ally seems more grounded; Elaine runs deeper; Ling and Nelle appear to be more than just one-joke characters; and so on. What makes this especially surprising is that the show had lost its two most “normal” characters at this point, what with Billy dying and Georgia leaving. And as Phil notes, adding Robert Downey Jr. to the cast isn’t exactly a move toward stability. I confess that I wasn’t the hugest fan of Downey during this phase of his career, which is probably why he alone wasn’t enough to get me to watch Ally McBeal again. I tended to find his twitchiness back then more self-indulgent than exciting. (His performance in Home For The Holidays is among my most hated of all time.) But that sense of not knowing what he might do next? Yes, it adds juice to a tired old formula. And perhaps Todd’s right that reacting to Downey challenged Flockhart to get more locked-in, at which point the rest of the cast followed suit.

It’s also interesting how that energy affects the musical numbers. I’m glad Phil picked this episode, because the scene where Downey sings “River” is exactly what I had in mind when I chose this theme: It’s a moment when the mood changes in an instant because somebody is expressing something, as earnestly as he knows how. It’s absolutely spellbinding, and everything I love about people singing songs in the context of a story. But I also want to speak up for Peter MacNicol’s big “rock ’n’ roll” number, because that too is the kind of musical moment I had in mind: somebody doing something delightfully unexpected, and giving people a thrill. It’s the opposite of what happened on our Frasier episode.

I can’t say that “’Tis The Season” has convinced me to catch up with all the Ally I missed. (I revisited an episode from an earlier season for my “A Very Special Episode” column last year, and the experience was pretty excruciating.) I still don’t think Kelley ever learned to balance the outrageous with the heartfelt on this show the way he did on The Practice during its peak seasons; and even here, the crazier moments never feel thought-through. They’re either shallow bits of business that these characters have done a hundred times, or they’re completely random. But it was instructive to see how in a series that never shied away from musical numbers, the most powerful ones came when the show wasn’t trying so hard to wow.

Donna Bowman: Oh, I love RD Jr. the action star. Because he plays Tony Stark as if he’s still doing intimate independent films, but he has such huge charisma that he can fill the biggest, noisiest, CGI-iest scenes by playing it with those soulful little tics. Just look at how Mark Ruffalo struggles (and fails) to do the same thing as Bruce Banner, and you can see why we’re so lucky to have Downey in that role, and why I’ll queue up for a million sequels.

But back to Ally McBeal. As Noel mentions, we were fans when the show started, but we checked out before season four, so I had never seen this episode before. And I was dreading it; the experience of revisiting “It’s My Party” in 2011 was painful. The show’s cartoonier elements have aged very poorly, and I ended that rewatch kind of hating everyone involved with making the show so broad and bizarre, and hating myself for being once enamored of something so gimmicky.

So what a pleasant surprise to find that McBeal is one of the few shows in history to have gotten more conventional as it went along, bucking the usual trend of ramping up the crazy. It’s not just Downey that grounds this episode; Peter MacNicol, for God’s sake, has gravitas—something he was never allowed when the show was on magazine covers. Vonda Shepard, despite appearing in the opening credits, does not appear anywhere else, and therefore the usual music, with its customary richly produced MOR homogeneity, is also gratifyingly missing in action. That leaves the floor open for the characters to have their own little musical moments, from Elaine’s show-stopping “Tomorrow” to Downey’s somehow heartbreaking although entirely calculated “River.”

My favorite thing about this hour, though? Greg Germann. His Fish was a motormouthed comedy machine that became, like everything else on the show, self-parody by the second season. But just look at the gorgeous little moment he crafts here with his karaoke machine, showing Cage how to fake-sing. (“There are very few words, you just move!”) The payoff when Cage runs with his advice at the actual bar performance, but in go-for-broke mode, is as delightful as the reaction shots of the characters in the audience make it out to be.

Erik Adams: Coming into this episode cold makes for an interesting viewing experience: I have context for Ally McBeal’s wackier side in half-formed memories of the Ally-vs.-baby dance battle, but only small traces of that show exist in “’Tis The Season.” And they’d fall flat even if they weren’t butting up against the work of Robert Downey Jr., dramatic dynamo: John’s whistling nose, the Looney Tunes noise when Elaine bonks Ally on head with a folder—they’re of a piece with characters getting an emotional workout through song, but there is, as Noel wrote, a shallowness there.

“’Tis The Season”’s deep end is the way it uses musical performance to break down its characters’ defenses. The episode does an excellent job of showcasing the disillusionment surrounding Ally; her colleagues are taking the existence of Santa Claus to court, after all. But, as Ryan said, there’s a vulnerability implicit in taking the stage and belting your guts out in front of strangers. As big-city professionals who hang out at a generically fashionable bar and work at a place with a unisex bathroom, no one at Cage & Fish (save for Elaine) would leap toward potential embarrassment the way leather-jacketed John does near the end of the episode. And make no mistake: He looks like a dweeb up there, but the scene springs from the same kind of emotionally honest place as Downey’s big turn at the piano. And that, not zany sound effects or instantly dated computer graphics, is what makes an episode of TV stand out 13 years after it first airs.

Stray observations:

RM: Anyone else watch this and mistake Elaine Vassal for Jenna Maroney more than once? I can’t be the only one that thought that.

RM: I’ll admit I spent most of the courtroom scenes waiting for The Hulk to enter and smash the concept of Christmas. As hard as it was to get past my current association with Jane Krakowski, it was doubly hard to not see Tony Stark onscreen.

NM: Shows never look more backlot-y than when they’re dressed for Christmas.

NM: If I did ever re-watch Ally McBeal, it’d be because I can’t help feeling nostalgic for popular culture from that particular time. I was in my mid-20s, had an office job I disliked, and rarely had any money (or time, because I was freelance writing at night). But the world back then seemed more stable and benign—even though it actually wasn’t—so the movies, music, comics, and TV shows seem to come from a more comfortable and comforting place. Or maybe that’s just something that everybody says about the stuff they liked when they were younger.

NM: Signs of the times: TV’s getting aggressively racier, with Kelley dropping the words “titty” and “vagina” into the script. (Also “pole-axed,” which isn’t a dirty word, but was fun to hear regardless.)

NM: People on TV either love Christmas or hate it. No one’s ever neutral.

NM: More on Christmas: Am I wrong in thinking that at least two parts of this episode were direct references to past Christmas classics? Like, wasn’t Larry’s pathetic first tree at Ally’s place sort of Charlie Brown-ish? And wasn’t the no-Santa trial pretty much an inversion of Miracle On 34th Street.?

DB: Speaking of reaction shots, did anybody else observe that director Arlene Sanford couldn’t hold on the actual speaker in a conversation for more than a couple of seconds without cutting to a lingering reaction shot from the silent party? Is that a David E. Kelley thing that I’ve never noticed? Is it McBeal house style?

DB: I love Lucy Liu’s little finger-clap after Elaine sings “Tomorrow” so much I want to leave my husband and marry it.

NM: Donna, you didn’t like Ruffalo in The Avengers? How did I not know this? And should I send the divorce papers to your office or leave them on the kitchen counter?

DB: I didn’t say I didn’t like him. I said he can’t do what Downey does. Clearly, sorting this out will take many expensive sessions in couples therapy—or maybe a new feature on The A.V. Club.

EA: For those keeping track, the Roundtable has now reviewed both instances of Portia De Rossi and Dakin Matthews appearing together on an episode’s call sheet—the other being Better Off Ted’s “Swag The Dog.”

Next week: Todd VanDerWerff tells us 7th Heaven’s musical episode, “Red Socks,” must be seen to be believed. We’ll see it, but will we believe it? Then, Donna Bowman and “The Nightman” cometh to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. (The former is available on Amazon Instant Video; the latter can be seen on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.) 

Filed Under: TV

More TV Roundtable