Ally McBeal: Justice In a Miniskirt

 

David E. Kelley has a silly side. Sure, he’s a former Boston lawyer. Yes, he’s married to Michelle Pfeiffer and yes, he’s now a successful television producer. But at least two of his shows, Ally McBeal and Boston Legal, have exposed him as a person who thinks the world of courtrooms and law firms is too much fun to be taken seriously. I thank Kelley for that. If I were a lawyer, I would love to work for Cage/Fish.

Ally McBeal was a hit for Fox in the fall of 1997. The show was fresh, inventive and featured an actress many working women came to identify with – as well as scorn, because Calista Flockhart was painfully thin and wore short miniskirts. There was a whole eating disorder debate going on, even though it took place entirely outside the show, and other controversies followed. Ally McBeal was an attorney with a nice education, but the character often came off as simply a blonde goose. And it wasn’t entirely unfair. Too much time went to depicting her troubled love life; everything was fine as long as she was dating someone, but as soon as that relationship ended the viewers had to go through a miserable period of Ally moping to the tune of Vonda Shepard’s predictable covers. Flockhart did however have a certain charm and spirit; Ally was not prepared to let anyone walk all over her. Another memorable part of the show was the dancing baby and all the other CGI hallucinations that Ally saw on occasion, a fact along with all of her romantic issues that she always felt obliged to discuss with her shrink.

Hilarious predecessors
Ally had joined Cage/Fish even though Billy (Gil Bellows), a former lover and childhood buddy, worked there with his wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith). The relationship between these three developed into a friendship, albeit an uneasy one. The two characters who always made it worthwhile to come back to this show were the senior partners, Richard Fish (Greg Germann) and John “Biscuit” Cage (Peter MacNicol). They constantly got on each other’s nerves, but they remained best friends. Richard was chronically shallow and would always say out loud the most outrageous things on his mind; John was a brilliant litigator, but shy, insecure and quirky beyond comprehension (it was latterly revealed that he had a secret hideout behind one of the stalls in the unisex bathroom). Germann and MacNicol were both hilarious predecessors to the crazed but heartwarming friendship between James Spader and William Shatner in Boston Legal. Portia de Rossi and Lucy Liu made colorful contributions to the cast as two attorneys who joined the firm in 1998; the women were hard as nails (Liu was usually accompanied by the “wicked witch” theme from The Wizard of Oz), but surprisingly enough they fell for Richard and John and dated them for a while. Another welcome cast member was Robert Downey, Jr. as a fun love interest for Ally… but the actor’s personal problems overwhelmed him and he soon exited the show.

Ally McBeal lost steam toward the end; several of the new characters were dull and pointless. But as Ally said goodbye and moved to New York, one was hoping she would find someone to love and a place to work that was as much fun as Cage/Fish.

Ally McBeal 1997-2002. Made for TV. 112 episodes. Color. Created by David E. Kelley. Theme: ”Searching My Soul” (performed by Vonda Shepard). Cast: Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal), Greg Germann (Richard Fish), Peter MacNicol (John ”Biscuit” Cage), Lisa Nicole Carson (97-01), Gil Bellows (97-00), Courtney Thorne-Smith (97-00), Jane Krakowski, Portia de Rossi (98-02), Lucy Liu (98-01), Robert Downey, Jr. (00-01), Julianne Nicholson (01-02), James Marsden (01-02), Josh Hopkins (01-02), Regina Hall (01-02), Hayden Panettiere (01-02).

Trivia: A half-hour show called Ally premiered in 1999, using new footage as well as some from the original series; it was soon canceled.

Emmys: Outstanding Comedy Series 98-99; Supporting Actor (MacNicol) 00-01; Guest Actress (Tracey Ullman) 98-99. Golden Globes: Best Comedy Series 98, 99; Actress (Flockhart) 98; Supporting Actor (Downey, Jr.) 01.

Quote: “You know, I had a great aunt once who said if you stare at a beautiful woman too long, you turn to stone. She was partially right.” (Germann)

Last word: “I was horrified when [TIME] said that she was somehow representative of today’s woman. Because that was not my intent, or anybody’s intent on Ally McBealAlly McBeal was telling the story of this one eccentric, often neurotic, often vulnerable character. And she represented no one else other than Ally McBeal.” (Kelley, Vulture)

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