Review of ‘Ally McBeal’ !

Ally played by Calista Flockhart and the dancing baby are the first images that come to one’s mind while thinking about this show. The scene was Boston for a change and Ally’s law firm was an assemblage of various oddball characters and court cases who regaled us every week.

The lead cast of Ally McBeal  Image Courtesy Vulture

It had a fair run for 5 Seasons though it was well past its prime in Season 3. The hope was revived by the charismatic pairing of Calista with Robert Downey Jr (Larry) but the dream sequence soured by the end of the season as the character was written out. Season 5 was pure desperation as everything was thrown at us including casting Jon Bon Jovi but the jig was up and the shown faded away into the sunset.

Ally as young neurotic lawyer struggling with her trials and tribulations in the quest for professional and personal success was a character who had an instant appeal to us. That she was a dreamer and true romantic at heart added further to her charm.

We are introduced to her joining the law firm run by her law-school batch mate Richard Fish (Greg Germann). Richard has established the firm with brilliant quirky lawyer John Cage (Peter MacNicol). Elaine (Jane Krakowski) plays an anchor role of a nosy secretary who’s primed up on the latest office gossip on the weird gang. Ally then discovers that her former boyfriend Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows) is to work with her. She has never quite got over their break-up. Further fun happens when Billy’s wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne Smith) joins the firm. The emotional frisson of this old triangle kept the series going strong till the middle of Season 3. Ally finds some emotional catharsis by sharing her travails with her flat-mate, Rene (Lisa Nicole Carson) who works as a Deputy District Attorney.

Incremental casting of Ling (Lucy Liu) and Nelle (Portia De Rossi) as love interest for Richard and John was a natural fit in the show. But the show wasn’t much as about law and reality – most of the cases were weird variations on the sexual harassment law. The show focussed heavily on the sex lives of its lead characters. Rather conveniently the court cases would revolve around the crises driving their personal lives and it was all add up to a neatly packaged closure. Typically the gang would end up in the evening at the Piano bar, singing and dancing along with the resident star musician – Vonda Shepard.

What was great about the series – 

Is this really a Courtroom show? – Undoubtedly the theme of being a law firm and the coverage of the court cases was ‘over-the-top’, but it was entertaining. In the initial phase the cases came across as refreshing although a theme developed around the frivolous suits involving Sexual Harassment law. But the lawyers had witty arguments and crazy presentations to keep us hooked. One always enjoyed trying to predict the eventual outcome of the case – the personal drama in the lives of the lead characters would give us a clue about where lay the sympathy of the director but it was subtle and occasionally we did have a ‘surprise’ verdict that caught us unawares.

The personality quirks work – Richard’s obsession with a woman’s ‘wattle’ and frequent quotation of ‘Fishisms’, Elaine’s unabashed sexuality, Ally’s propensity to fall down, John’s pre-occupation with his own thoughts all add flavour to the show. The choice of theme songs to up their psyche is interesting as well. It particularly works well for John Cage and his obsession with Barry White. His theme song, ‘My first, my last, my everything. And the answer to all my dreams.’  is a great choice and syncs in perfectly with his character. You enjoy all the sequences when this one pops up including the couple of occasions when Barry White makes a cameo appearance of the show as well.

Pushing the envelope when it comes to dealing with modern life issues – Some of the court cases appear to be bizarre to begin with but as things progress we hear great arguments that expose our prejudice and bigotry. It is always possible to imagine a fresh perspective on the issue and often what amounts to nit-picking it does have a kernel of truth hidden within. We might not agree with all that is proposed but you end up having a sneaking admiration for some of the arguments that lost the case on the day. May be a few years down the line, you might get a new take on the issue.

What went wrong for the series –

It pandered to some wrong stereotypes while imagining the life of a young and successful lawyer. Ally is shown to be flighty and neurotic, she fantasizes and has imaginary conversations, often she falls down on meeting an attractive man. Her dating pattern is obvious and repeated ad nauseam. Her lean frame even drew criticism for setting the wrong image for young girls who look up to her as a celebrity character. Is her life a true celebration of feminism, we wonder? But possibly the character was ‘over-the-top’ so should not be judged as per conventional standards.

The shows popularity waned and waxed as lot of external factors impacted its casting and storyline. While the love triangle had started to wane by Season 3, but the makeover of Billy Thomas from a metro sexual to a male chauvinist pig came as a shock. We thought this was a temporary twist but it got worse when the character was written off from the series. Season 4 saw a revival of sorts when Ally’s character was paired off with Larry (Robert Downey Jr). The perfect finale was planned with their wedding but external events forced Larry’s character to be written off.

Season 5 was arduous and simply went nowhere – The original cast lost a lot of members by now i.e. Billy, Georgia, Ling, Larry and John all disappeared. The new cast including an attempt to recreate the old love triangle was definitely off-key. Desperate makeover attempts included introduction of Jon Bon Jovi as a love interest for Ally, her becoming a Partner in the firm and suddenly discovering a 10-year old biological daughter. Well nothing clicked. The court cases too lost their zing and appeal. It eventually reflected in the falling viewership and the plug was pulled on the series.

Even the finale was a rather patchy effort – it brought along a forced re-union of most of the old characters, a surprise wedding for Richard and a tearful sendoff for Ally who plans to move to the Big Apple now. Well at least we got to see Barry White for a final overture.


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