And so I frittered away my few remaining feminist “brownie points” by purchasing the complete run of Ally McBeal on DVD. Now I’m doomed to burn for all eternity in the lamest circle of Hell. But it was such a bargain!
To be honest, I can totally understand why the series annoyed as many female viewers as it did. Ally herself (as played by Calista Flockhart) is a flighty, neurotic, self-absorbed romantic… “I like being a mess. It’s who I am!”, she declares defiantly. I’ve never met a woman who behaved that way, or thought that way… on the other hand, I can identify with her to a frightening degree! Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones may sit at opposite ends of the scales (more on that later), but they both speak to the hopeless, clumsy, delusional optimist in me. That tendency towards wishing for a “fairy tale ending” tends to be identified as a “feminine” character trait, but I don’t believe that all women share it, or that all men are immune to it… so I can completely understand why many women found the series revolting, even as I’m drawn to it inexorably!
The other major issue, of course, was related to body-size… an issue which still grabs headlines, as the fashion industry thrashes out the “size zero” debate on its catwalks. I am prepared to believe that some women are born with a natural tendency towards skinniness… I mean, I’m no expert on biology, and spent most of my science lessons at school cowering from naked flames, but there is such a thing as natural variance isn’t there? I don’t see why it’s so implausible that a woman could be born naturally slender, and still be relatively healthy in body and mind. The problem is that these women are often placed on a pedestal above all other women by the media, and so they come to be regarded as the epitome of femininity, rather than simply one type among many. Consequently some women, who are not naturally slender, take drastic measures to follow in their tiny, tiny footsteps. Other women decry the skinnies, and direct a great deal of hostility towards them. I’ve even seen sites where men claim that Ruben-esque curves are the only type of “true femininity”, and that waifs should simply whither away in the shadows. Frankly I’m getting tired of any attempt to hammer out a universal definition of what is, or is not, “feminine”… and I wince when men get together to decide what shape womankind should be. The constant attempt to squeeze humanity into strict “pigeonholes” and roles is one which we should resist, because it’s unhealthy, and unhelpful. It denies the glorious variety that Nature and Chaos can produce.
So, back to what I actually like about the show! First of all, I think they had an excellent ensemble cast. I’m still working my way through the first season, and have yet to reacquaint myself with Lucy Liu and Portia de Rossi, who came in during the second season and proved hugely popular. Both women are very beautiful and, more importantly, also very funny. One fact I love about de Rossi is that she made her stage name up, apparently at random, simply because it sounded “exotic”. That’s so Old Hollywood of her! Second time around, I’m even starting to appreciate Gil Bellows and Courtney Thorne-Smith’s contributions, although they tend to get lost admit the escalating absurdity. Lisa Nicole Carson also comes at the material from a less “wacky” angle, grabbing Ally’s airborne ankle and bringing her back down to earth with a sly grin. Great singing voice too. I was very sad to discover that she has now (allegedly) been diagnosed as schizophrenic, and retired from public life. Ironically, going back to the previous point, she was probably the “curviest” actress working in mainstream American television, and it’s a joy to watch her powering through her scenes, brass and sass belying her character’s heartbreaking vulnerability. The double-act and friendship between her and Ally is really the heart of the show, and again it’s a shame that it was lost as the wack-factor increased.
Another reason why I love the show occurred to me as I watched the character of ‘John Cage’ (Peter MacNicol) stood in that infamous unisex bathroom, preparing to go to court, . Here was an “odd little man”, who was elevated to heroic status not because he was better looking than his rivals, or because he could fire a gun faster than the “villain”, but because he was smarter than they were. He was more eloquent and more passionate, more cunning and devious… but also, perhaps, more sincere. And so, he conquered. I’ve always loved courtroom dramas, because they’re probably the closest we come to the noble ideal of the philosophical forum… where issues and ideas are held up for scrutiny, and debated until a consensus can be formed. Of course, in reality a courtroom isn’t nearly so exciting or enlightening, but in the fictional realm they become enthralling intellectual arenas. The cases that Cage, Fish & Associates took were always rather frivolous, as befits the style of the show, but they threw up some genuinely curious questions, which must have been fun to debate around the “water cooler” the next day… or years later, even.
All in all, I don’t really know what legacy Ally has left. I don’t believe for a second that it provides much insight into the female mind, and it probably didn’t do much good for the female body, but taken as a hit of pure television, by responsible adults, it’s a very funny and engaging piece of entertainment, which occasionally gets the cogs whirring and the waterworks flowing. Convinced? No? Ah well… that may explain why the box set was being sold so cheap…
Edit (18/12/07): The final season isn’t nearly as “pointless” as I recalled. It’s true that too many new characters wander in and out at random, but that was probably just because they were having so much trouble filling the vacuum left by Robert Downey Jr, after his fantastic work in the fourth season. It’s also cool to see that some of the random recurring actors have gone on to bigger things, such as James Marsden (of X-Men movie fame) and Hayden Panettiere (of Bring It On: All Or Nothing fame). Personally I could have done without Dame Edna Everage’s “acid reflux” schtick, but the season is still quite an enjoyable watch… not as good as its predecessors, and Carson was very much missed, but still pretty good.