3 min

Where sexual politics & law collide

The shtick quickly soured

Credit: Xtra files

Even if you hadn’t heard the rumours about Calista Flockhart’s alleged anorexia, you might have wondered about the poor waif’s diet. Playing the title character on Ally McBeal, her hair was stringy, her arms twiggy and as for her alter ego – what was going on there?

Ally McBeal started out as a slight and bewitching cross between Annie Hall and Mary Richards, an insecure soul brought low by insecurity and massive libidinal strife. She was a stand-in for anyone who’s ever experienced emotional angst.

But the charm quickly curdled and by the time Ally McBeal entered its final season this year, the title character had turned into a mean and bitter witch, a ball of neurotic energy the size and consistency of a bale of barbed wire.

Still, it was a shock when they cancelled Ally McBeal. The five-year-old romantic comedy could be mawkishly sentimental, but at its best, it had more charm and imagination than any other show on the air. It had the best opening credits, the best use of music, and some of the most memorable characters on the box: Tracey Ullman’s brash shrink, Lucy Liu’s chic ice princess and of course Flockhart’s overly sensitive Ally.

What other character could boast of such an imaginative inner life? Remember the dancing baby? David E Kelley, the show’s creator and chief writer, never underestimated the power of voices and visions.

Most of all, though, Ally McBeal zapped the zeitgeist with style and vigour. Like all the best shows, Ally tapped contemporary fears and confusions. When it wasn’t being maudlin or sentimental, Ally was the great satire of 1990s sexual political correctness.

Ally first aired in 1997, several years after the Anita Hill scandal, but the controversy over sexual harassment was in its bones. A tale of young lawyers in love (or something), Ally mocked the ’90s obsession with sexual regulation. Think you can supply rules for sex in the workplace? asked Ally. Think again. Attempts at regulation were mocked as a joke, doomed to farce by the anarchic force of human sexual desire.

Week after week, Ally and her colleagues tackled wingy legal cases that took the idea of sexual harassment legislation to ever more bizarre lengths. One person was attacked for being too prudish, another for being too attractive and a third for having fostered sexual harassment in a factory he had never visited.

Meanwhile back at the office, the uniformly horny cast of lawyers put the lie to the idea of a sustainable code of sexual ethics. Partners lusted after associates, couples did it on office desks, the office secretary lusted after anything in pants, and Ally, of course, spent far more time on her love life than her legal practice.

Bridget Jones with better clothes, Ally mirrored the sexual confusion of the ’90s. A card carrying romantic, she found herself doing it with a stranger in a car wash – a stranger, it turned out, who was about to be married. A firm believer in the separation of the generations, Ally found herself attracted to an 18-year-old.

Psychological contradiction fuelled the show’s comedy but a fixation with physical perfection provided its dark undertow. “Average” people never appeared on Ally. The characters were either astonishingly beautiful or borderline nerdish. Like all satirists, Kelley is a bit of conservative and his shows often seemed to revolve around a Darwinian struggle for sexual dominance, with the victory inevitably going to those with flawless skin and great hair.

Older women were allowed but only if they looked like Dyan Cannon. It was beauty versus the beast and beauty always won.

For a while, this was funny. The show’s willingness to state the obvious – beauty has power – stood out in a time addicted to comforting illusions.

But the shtick quickly soured. By the end of the show’s third season, Ally was beginning to grate. She seemed angry, bitter, selfish and self-involved, the very epitome of the yuppie with everything who still wanted more.

By the time Robert Downey Jr joined the cast, the writing was on the wall. Self parody was imminent. Downey is a brilliant actor, but too intense for Ally’s light comedy. A sort of intellectual Cary Grant, Downey played the second great love of Ally’s life as a tense, puckish and enigmatic figure, knowing and slightly superior. Undisturbed by her quirky charm, he examined her like a scientist about to chloroform an insect.

The show could not long withstand such knowing exposure. The last original episode airs Mon, May 20. It remains to be seen whether Ms McBeal will transcend her time and join the likes of Lucy and Mary in the comedic pantheon.


Series finale. 9pm. Mon, May 20.

CTV & Fox.