Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
In 1998, Time ran a cover story titled “Is Feminism Dead?” and teased it on the cover with an image of four disembodied heads: Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and the TV character Ally McBeal. That cover, and the accompanying article by Ginia Bellafante, aroused a lot of comment both in the traditional print media and the nascent online community, prompting reserved think-pieces and ferocious takedowns alike. A pointed rant by Erica Jong in The New York Observer typified the latter:
The rest of the story is equally silly—featuring Spice Girl lyrics cheek by jowl with Camille Paglia-esque analyses of the “iconography” of Courtney Love, Bust magazine and the now-departed Spice, Ginger. Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem get short shrift. Neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor Hillary Rodham Clinton is even glimpsed. The Equal Rights Amendment debacle and the fortunes of contraception and abortion in America do not rate a mention.
Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart dismissed the hubbub, saying that Ally was a fictional character, and didn’t have any deeper meaning. Meanwhile, Ally McBeal’s creator, David E. Kelley—whose button-pushing skills can trump even Time’s—reveled in the swarm of attention being paid to his goofy little one-hour legal sitcom, and tried to think of a way he could work this zeitgeist-y business into an Ally script.
Ally McBeal was one weird show: maybe the strangest TV series to become a phenomenon since the heyday of Twin Peaks, seven years earlier. Prior to creating Ally McBeal, Kelley worked on L.A. Law and created Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, and The Practice. He’d developed a signature style: zippy, of-the-moment teleplays populated by characters with strong opinions and more than a few quirks. Ally McBeal was turbocharged Kelley. Flockhart starred as a young, single lawyer who landed a job at the same kooky Boston law firm as her now-married childhood sweetheart. Along with all the usual Kelley-style hijinks—cases ripped from the headlines, surprise twists, pervasive eccentricity—Kelley added a gimmick in which Ally’s inner thoughts were externalized via quick, cartoony interludes. It was L.A. Law by way of Tex Avery.
The gimmick helped Ally McBeal build a good bit of buzz by the end of its first season. The show got off to a slow start in the ratings, but following an episode in which the heroine began hallucinating a “dancing baby” that was identical to a popular piece of Internet animation, Ally McBeal became a hot topic. The attention inevitably turned from the show to Flockhart, a relative unknown who had an unconventional look and style for a TV star. She was thin as a twig, with enormous lips and eyes, and in spite of her adeptness at spitting out Kelley’s rapid-fire dialogue, there was a brittleness about Flockhart that differentiated her from the other motormouths on TV in the late ’90s and early ’00s. She wasn’t as strong as Buffy Summers, as in-the-know as Carrie Bradshaw, or as warm as Lorelei Gilmore. In the context of the other loonies populating Ally’s firm, Flockhart’s performance made sense. On her own, Ally McBeal was more problematic—criticized by some for her bony features, short skirts, and almost alien approach to human relationships.
Hence “It’s My Party,” an episode from early in Ally McBeal’s second season, which aired a few months after the Time article ran. In “It’s My Party,” Ally defends George Madison (played by John Ritter), who has been fired from his job as editor of a women’s magazine because his boss has learned that he’s a Baptist, and is convinced that this makes him unsuitable to oversee a purportedly feminist publication, given the Baptists’ official position on a woman’s “place.” It’s a typical Kelley case: a hot-button cultural issue, given a twist. In this case, the twist is that it’s the non-Christian who’s the bigot. Though George has demonstrated no misogynist bias, his publisher insists that his not publicly disavowing his faith makes him complicit. “Sometimes silence can scream,” she says, while comparing Baptists to the KKK.
Complicating Ally’s defense of George is that the judge takes offense at her attire, and threatens to find her in contempt if she returns to his court with such a high hemline. Ally ignores the warning, and though the judge finds in George’s favor, he throws Ally in jail immediately after handing down his verdict. When he calls her back in and asks if she’s going to apologize, she says, “You’re a pig, and we’re all sorry for that.” The day is then saved when Ally’s associate Nelle Porter (played by Portia di Rossi) delivers an impassioned defense of women’s rights, and demands that judges remain oblivious to an attorney’s appearance, all while she lets down her hair and strips off her jacket. The judge, chastened, dismisses the charge, but first asks if Ally has anything to add. All of her colleagues—who’ve shown up en masse to support her—shout, “No!” but Ally glances over at Nelle and says, “I wish I had her hair.”
All of the above is prologue to what “It’s My Party” is really building to: a dinner-party that Ally’s been planning for weeks, along with her roommate, Renee. The evening takes an unfortunate turn when Renee’s boyfriend Ben brings up Ally’s courtroom attire and asks, “What’s the deal?” The women take turns discussing how they use sexuality to gain an edge in business, which mortifies Ally and irritates her ex, Billy, who suggests that maybe men should walk around wearing Speedos to express their “individuality.” Later, in the kitchen, he continues to berate Ally, noting that the whole office shut down to come support her stupid dress-code cause, and she didn’t even seem to notice. He also points out that all her anxiety over this dinner party has nothing to do with whether her friends enjoy themselves, but whether they think well of her.
When “It’s My Party” originally aired, Ally McBeal was one of the most popular shows on TV, but the series flamed out quickly. By 1999, the show was so huge that it spawned a short-lived half-hour version, emphasizing the romantic-comedy elements and skipping the courtroom drama. That same year, the animated sitcom Futurama devoted the bulk of an episode to parodying Allymania. Three years later, Ally McBeal was off the air, and largely out of the cultural conversation.
That isn’t unusual for a David E. Kelley production. Throughout his career, he’s tended to burn through his initial inspiration early, then tried to see how much craziness his characters and premise can hold before fans throw their hands up and surrender. Even The Practice—the more prestigious series Kelley supervised simultaneously with Ally McBeal—went through a couple of seasons where it was rightfully cited as an example of TV’s renaissance, before Kelley started loading the show with offbeat new characters and implausible plot twists.
With Ally McBeal, Kelley started with a foundation of eccentricity, then veered into absurdity, underlaid with more than a little disdain. At times, Kelley seemed to hate his heroine, and he didn’t seem to regard her cohorts much more kindly. That would explain both Ally’s appallingly self-absorbed behavior and the dressing-down she gets from Billy. Even when Ally’s supposed to be adorable—when she’s practicing dancing to “Superfreak” so she’ll look cool at her party, or imagining herself leaping onto George and thrusting her crotch in his face, or literally turning red when she says George has a good “face” instead of “case”—she comes off as a construct, perhaps designed to embody the traits of every wacko, irritating girlfriend Kelley has ever had.
And the supporting cast isn’t much better-rounded. Consider Elaine Vassal (played by Jane Krakowski), the oversexed, annoyingly inventive receptionist who in this episode shows off her latest moneymaking scheme: condoms with sayings that “you can read as you unfurl.” Or consider John Cage (Peter MacNicol), who has a remote-control commode-flusher, and terrorizes the ladies in the firm’s unisex bathroom when he loses track of his show-frog; or Richard Fish (Greg Germann), who gets turned on by the “wattles” hanging down from women’s necks, and is prone to say outrageous things and then to coin them as “Fishisms” or to excuse them by muttering “bygones.” These characters provide comic relief in an already-comic show, and while they can be funny in bursts, they’re too bizarre to care about as people.
Yet Ally McBeal became a hit for a while—and not unaccountably. Much of its success had to do with the times. The late-’90s was a low-stakes era, at least in the United States. In America, the economy boomed, and threats of war and violence seemed remote, and perhaps even permanently banished. It was an age when obsessing over minutiae and spending hours in contemplation of our own desires didn’t seem so useless. Today, Ally McBeal seems like it takes place in an alternate universe, but not an unpleasant one. From Vonda Sheperd’s earnest ersatz R&B theme song to the less-than-life-or-death complications, the world of Ally McBeal feels well-cushioned.
In a 2000 essay in Colby Quarterly, “The Problem That Has a Name: Ally McBeal And The Future of Feminism,” Kathleen Newman described why she and so many others fell in love with the show—and why they fell out:
I liked the fact that McBeal was smart, sexy, and scattered. I liked her tiny lavender suits, her tendency to smack strangers on the street if they bumped into her by mistake, and her palpable loneliness. … I never sympathized with her unrequited passion for her childhood-sweetheart-but-now-married-to-somebody-else Billy—he seemed as dumb as toast—but I understood what he represented: the safety of the past, the promise of a conventional future. Ally McBeal made me realize that my “people”—highly educated, ambitious, heterosexual women in their thirties—were becoming victim to our own unexamined expectations. … While I was never one of those little girls to dream about my wedding day, when I hit 27 I suddenly found myself wishing for china patterns, bridal showers, and baby-naming books. I did not know where these desires came from; I did not know how to make them go away. Ally McBeal named these longings and embraced their hypocrisy. … For thousands of fans, Ally McBeal had quickly become equipment for thinking about love, relationships, sex, and careers—a “strategy” for combating loneliness, boredom at work, and angst over single-womanhood.
By the second season, however, I was losing my ardor for the program—while Calista Flockhart was losing her curves. I applauded her for refusing to wear a padded bra during the second season, which contributed to her incredible shrinking appearance, but I was irritated that her character never seemed to evolve: she was forever dissatisfied, spumed or spuming, and continually stuck on the super-dud Billy. Not that I craved a happy ending, romantic-comedy style, but I did want McBeal to display some movement—some emotional growth—if only to affirm the possibility for change in my own life. Instead she reverted, her body becoming virtually prepubescent. Emotionally she remained stuck in her fantasies, stuck with her therapist who recommended she choose an upbeat “theme song” for her life, stuck with her crush on a man she could never have.
Newman went on to talk about what “feminism” means in relation to popular culture and actual culture:
If we are truly in search of feminist role models on television, let’s round up Amy Brenneman, who plays Amy on Judging Amy, Camryn Manheim, who plays the heavyset, volatile lawyer on The Practice, Marge Simpson, Oprah Winfrey, Allison Janney, who plays the White House Press Secretary C.J. on The West Wing, and Melina Kanakaredes, who plays Dr. Sydney Hansen on Providence. These women are tough, mostly single, good at their jobs, and stoic. Some of them are single mothers, some are too fat or too tall, some are cranky—even bitchy. If backed into a comer, they kick ass. These are women I would follow into battle. And for me, feminism is a battle. In private moments I might turn to Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones for solace: through them I can feel sorry for myself when no one else is looking. But I do not look to them for a sense of where the next fight is going to be. Feminism, while it is always mired in culture, is ultimately about political, social and economic equality.
Newman’s essay raises a pertinent question: what would make a television show “feminist?” And would that be something to value or dread? Because the problem with making any television character into a representative of a gender—or race, or subculture, or even a point of view—is that everything about that character gets filtered through “the statement.” Newman mentions Flockhart’s skinniness, which became such a topic of public fascination that Flockhart’s skeletal arms were spotlighted on the cover of People, next to her insistence that she didn’t have an eating disorder. As an exemplar of modern womanhood, what message did Flockhart/Ally’s rail-thin body send? That women can be whatever body type they want to be, or that women should continue to chase the unhealthy fashion-model ideal?
With those kinds of questions swirling about, it’s no wonder the people involved with Ally McBeal tried to downplay the show’s importance. Even as recently as March 2011, in an interview with Vulture, Kelley said, “I was horrified when they said that she was somehow representative of today’s woman. Because that was not my intent, or anybody’s intent on Ally McBeal. Ally McBeal was telling the story of this one eccentric, often neurotic, often vulnerable character. And she represented no one else other than Ally McBeal.”
But Kelley tried to have it both ways: feigning that his show was just a trifle while also trying to engage directly—and sometimes defiantly—with some of the biggest gender-rooted issues dominating the media at the time, such as sexual harassment, date rape, political correctness, and pornography. Given the show’s relentless topicality, what were viewers to make of the way Ally resolved so many of her own problems by mindlessly—and fairly joylessly—singing and dancing? Or the way she was actively hostile to other women, especially when she showed an interest in their boyfriends? In “It’s My Party,” for example, Ally knows that George is with Elaine, and yet she flirts with him from the moment they meet, and practically pants with predatory desire as he walks away from her. Even given that Ally McBeal was about “one character,” did that character have to be so abominably narcissistic?
It’s not that surprising that Newman and others would look to Ally McBeal for solace and inspiration—or that they would be disappointed by the show’s ultimate shallowness. One of the major functions of television is to unite large groups of similar people, by appealing to our sense of our peer group as having some special quality that deserves to be recognized. Yes, it’s a mistake to expect much character development and change in a medium that demands characters remain recognizably “themselves” as long as a series runs. But Newman certainly wasn’t wrong to be frustrated that Ally’s look-at-me-ism became so entrenched, no matter how many times her colleagues and romantic partners chastised her for it.
In the Vulture interview, Kelley says of Ally McBeal, “That show and that character took on a bigger life than anyone had anticipated with the public and the media, so you’re just open to more scrutiny and that’s a good thing I suppose.” And he’s right, of course. Television is a business, and Ally McBeal wouldn’t have irritated so many people if it weren’t being seen by so many people. Kelley was just doing his job. But there’s a reason why Ally McBeal’s boon years were so brief, and why the series isn’t discussed as much anymore. Like its heroine, Ally McBeal excelled at getting attention, but only because that was the gig, not because it held the kind of convictions a generation could rally around.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Dragnet, “The Christmas Story”