[Contains consolation snowmen and SPOILERS!!!]
By rights, the fourth season of Ally McBeal (2000) should have ended with ‘Ally’ (Calista Flockhart) and her new beau ‘Larry Paul’ (Robert Downey Jr.) getting hitched. That isn’t just me being soppy… it’s the actual ending that the show’s writer/creator David E. Kelley had plotted out, before Downey’s drug addiction and legal issues prompted the network to kick him and his character to the curb. In fact, the season finale still retains its original title “The Wedding”, as a sad/ironic reminder of what might have been. So, hardcore fans have good reason to both cheer and jeer Downey: On the one hand, his chemistry with Flockhart was undeniable, and their characters’ romance was probably the best thing that ever happened to this show, because it made Ally grow up a little and gave her a serious long-term relationship to work through… on the other hand, Larry’s abrupt exit was a heart-breaker for Ally, the audience, and Kelley alike, sending the show into a terminal slump for its fifth/final season. Personally, I’ve enjoyed Mr Downey’s reinvention as an action hero just as much as anyone else… but I can’t help wishing I lived in an alternate universe where he’d managed to get clean and sober a decade or so earlier, so that Larry and Ally could have walked down the aisle together, dammit.
On the subject of actors who were conspicuously absent this season, I was disappointed that Alicia Witt didn’t return as ‘Hope Mercey’, and now realise that the reason I couldn’t remember her character’s big secret is that it was never actually revealed on-screen. Given Kelley’s pre-occupation with “hetero-flexibility” that year, I’m just gonna go ahead and assume she was bisexual and intent on seducing ‘Nelle’ (Portia de Rossi). Let’s just take a moment, shall we? [Hmmm….] And while this post is edging towards slash-fiction, it’s also worth noting that ep #4.2 (“Girls’ Night Out”) saw the first of several slumber parties for the female cast members (including the erstwhile Courtney Thorne-Smith), which were arranged by ‘Renée’ (Lisa Nicole Carson) to help cheer Ally up… though the way they dissected her problems wasn’t always especially helpful or supportive. Sadly neither Georgia nor Renée seemed to do much lawyering this season…. but Carson did get plenty songs to sing at the bar, so that’s some consolation.
As for the guest-stars who did show up and satisfactorily complete their story arcs: Lisa Edelstein made her debut in ep #4.2 as ‘Cindy McCauliff, a transgender woman fighting her employer’s mandatory insurance physical, because she didn’t want anyone to discover that she still had a penis. ‘Mark’ (James LeGros) took a shine to her, and the two of them started dating, but eventually the sniggering over her errant genitalia and his own transphobia proved insurmountable, so they separated. Cindy then returned in ep #4.12 (“Hats Off to Larry”) with a new fella, hoping the firm would represent her as she appealed for the right to marry her fiancé, despite the fact she was still legally defined as a “man”… prompting Richard to make the same arguments in favour of gay marriage that many of us accept as common sense today (although he sadly lost the case, and ended up “marrying” them himself).* I can’t speak to the accuracy of Cindy’s portrayal here, but I thought she was a fantastically feisty and sympathetic character, and greatly enjoyed Edelstein’s performance in the role. In fact, she’s probably my fave female love interest in the series overall… and Mark’s impassioned testimony on her behalf was probably one of the biggest tear-jerkers of the season. Bless ‘im.
Jami Gertz debuted in ep #4.4 (“Without a Net”) as ‘Kimmy Bishop’, an uptight, antisocial classmate of Ally’s, who first tried to sue our heroine for defaming her in front of her prudish peers, and then hired Cage & Fish to represent her in a wrongful termination suit, when her judgemental ways got her kicked off the partnership track at her own firm. John defended her, and eventually they started to see each other… though their courtship hit a snag when it became apparent that Kimmy was still dangerously dependent on her mother (Marlo Thomas), who chaperoned all of their dates. After that, John was drawn to ‘Melanie West’ (Anne Heche), who debuted in ep #4.9 (“Reason to Believe”) as a school teacher with Tourette syndrome, accused of murdering her boyfriend with her car. John uses his own tics and idiosyncrasies to put her at ease, and talks her into admitting that she ran the victim over by accident, rather than sticking to her claim that it was an intentional act. At first, she came off as quite a spiky, canny character, but every episode seemed to toss another bucket of whimsy and quirkiness at her, so I was kinda glad to see her get dumped (after confessing that she’d eventually leave John without warning anyway, because she’s allergic to contentment! Eurgh!) That said, I did enjoy Heche’s firecracker performance, and thought she looked particularly fetching with the retro-“flapper”-hair-do and outfits they gave her in later episodes.
And as for the male love interests: This season saw ‘Ling’ (Lucy Liu) reuniting with not one but two previously-unseen old flames who made her all sad and boring, as if she were a normal person with normal feelings, rather than the alpha-bitch-glamazon-goddess we were sold in previous seasons. Her weird weakness for twinkly-eyed elderly men also let her down badly here… I’d much rather see her snarling at someone or squealing with delight over a horror movie stabbing, than moping around her office or smiling indulgently at some geezer who’s gone gaga! Meanwhile, Nelle fell for a handsome doctor, who was then immediately imprisoned for euthanasia and refused to let her visit him in prison… so that was the end of that. ‘Elaine’ (Jane Krakowski) briefly dated Mark after his break-up with Cindy, but it mostly happened off-screen, and clearly wasn’t that serious… it also involved some truly nightmarish scenes involving a CGI-enhanced vibrating bra, that made me nauseous every time I saw it in action. Ick.
Now, on to the laundry list of cameos: Marcia Cross appeared in ep #4.2 as ‘Myra Robbins’, a predatory boss-lady being sued for sexually harassing a male employee. Famke Janssen appeared in ep #4.8 (“The Man with the Bag”) as ‘Jamie’, the baby-mama of Larry’s precocious little snot of a son… then returned again a couple episodes later, trying to win her ex back by threatening to move to Canada with their child. Boo to her! Brenda Strong appeared in ep #4.11 (“Mr. Bo”) as ‘Jerry Hill’, an unrepentant boss who fired her secretary for becoming (slightly) overweight, and supposedly spoiling the image of her company. Constance Marie appeared in ep #4.12 as ‘Inez Cortez’, the female half of a dissolved dancing duo, whose partner sues her for stealing the moves which he claims he originated (though he was making love with her at the time!) Missi Pyle appeared in ep #4.13 (“Reach Out And Touch”) as ‘Marcia Hooper’, a nymphomaniac whose husband files for an annulment, after discovering that she’s cheated on him over a hundred times (and even made out with the minister who married them!) Kelly Lynch appeared in ep #4.14 (“Boys Town”) as ‘Gloria Albright’, the boss of a company who decided to fire all of her male employees en masse (either because she thinks women are smarter, or because she’d just split up with her husband, depending on who you believe).
Rhea Perlman appeared in ep #4.15 (“Falling Up”) as ‘Dr. Helen Tooth’, one of Ally’s new (and very sceptical) therapists. Kathryn Joosten also appeared as ‘Sister Alice’, a contraception-curious nun in one of Ally’s anxiety dreams. Bernadette Peters appeared in ep #4.16 (“The Getaway”) as ‘Cassandra Lewis’, an aggrieved divorcée John meets while on a jolly to L.A., whose husband hired a man to seduce her so she’d break a pre-nup and lose her alimony! She returned in a later episode, intent on wooing John… but he was still trying to get over Melanie, and politely-but-firmly rebuffed her. D’oh! Alexandra Holden also appeared as ‘Jane Wilco’, a cute aspiring actress/escort (not prostitute!) who mistakes Richard for a client, and lands him in hot water with hotel security. She also returned in a later episode, and eventually ended up working at the firm as Richard’s perky new assistant. Regina Hall debuted in ep #4.20 (“Cloudy Skies, Chance of Parade”) as ‘Corretta Lipp’, Larry’s new associate… who then went on to run the firm in his absence. Cheri Oteri also appeared as ‘Melissa’, the ex-wife of a man who decides to sue Sting (the music guy) for supposedly breaking up their marriage by singing and dancing provocatively in his wife’s direction during a concert.
* Obviously Gay-people-problems are different from Trans-people-problems, but the show basically treated Cindy as a gay-man-who-looks-deceptively-like-a-woman, rather than as Transgender (e.g., they use the word “homophobia” to describe negative reactions to her, rather than “transphobia”). I guess that was the way (some) people thought at the time… maybe still do today…?