Test Pilot #67: Ally McBeal

By Cory Barker and Kerensa Cadenas 

Test Pilot #67: Ally McBeal
Debut date: September 8, 1997
Series legacy: One of the most talked about–and most controversial–shows in the David E. Kelley canon

Hey there. Welcome back to Test Pilot. I had to take some extra time that meant our discussion of The Practice got discarded, which is unfortunate. But we’re back to close out the David E. Kelley theme with a look at Ally McBeal. In case you need a refresher on this theme: With Kelley’s The Crazy Ones soon to debut having debuted on CBS, I thought it might be interesting to look back on his career, which has featured a number of big-time successes and a few weird choices as well. Although it’s problematic to head down a road where we’re assigning a series’ creative output to one individual, pilots often give us the best representation of a writer’s vision for a project. So hopefully the next few entries won’t dive too deep into overly auteurist considerations of Kelley’s work, even if myself and my guests will be looking for ongoing themes and through-lines. Kelley’s place in history is fascinating: Is he anything close to a real innovator or just someone who did one thing really well for far too long? Is he an ally (see what I did there?) to women or just a Patronizing White Dude? Or, is he all those things? We’ll try to figure it out as best as we can.

Today’s subject is Ally McBeal, the late 1990s phenomenon and accused killer of feminism. The legal dramedy came on the air in the fall before Kelley’s Practice debuted, giving him one heck of a successful season. Ally was a big deal in its first few seasons, giving Kelley the kind of buzz his Chicago Hope never really had. Kerensa will talk about that infamous Time cover, but I’m sure you also know of the dancing baby and the other surreal and bizarre sequences. Ally feels very of its time in the late ’90s, so we’re here today to talk a little about whether or not it hold up, and if Kelley could actually write a show about women.

Kerensa’s up first!

Kerensa: When you were looking for people to talk with you about Ally McBeal, I was fully prepared to stalk you in order to do so. I remember watching Ally McBeal when I was growing up; I was 12 and watched a ton of Fox shows with my family. I didn’t remember a ton about the show–just the Ally and Billy romantic angst, Lucy Liu being amazing and that dancing baby.

Last winter, not long after I started writing at This Was Television, two of my close friends told me they had been revisiting Ally McBeal together and reminded me of details I had totally forgotten about primarily Robert Downey Jr. When one of my Ally watching friends, Neekta, described the feminism of Ally as “Is that 90s feminism–silver hoops and being fed up?” I knew it was something I really wanted to revisit.

When I watched it I was obviously too young to really understand the cultural phenomenon (that Time cover!) it caused or probably to totally understand the content of the show itself. Of course in a completely shallow way, the first thing watching the pilot I noticed was how 90s Ally’s neckerchief was.

More seriously, however, I really do feel like the pilot holds up much better than I expected it to.  I remember (which is something what I believe the Time article echoed) many complaints about Ally’s (Calista Flockhart) neurosis, anti-feminism and weight.  However, I feel like the pilot deals with quite a bit of feminist content–first of all Ally’s sexual harassment case which really moves along the plot to get her at Richard’s firm. While it’s made to be comedic, I still found it pretty enraging and Ally seems to take it pretty seriously as well. She stands up for herself against this scumbag who has been groping her, throws a book at his head and quits her job and sues her former employer. However, grossly, much of this is because he counter sues claiming “OCD” aka obvious bullshit.

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I think in the pilot you can see where much of the Ally angst stems from but I think also much of her anxiety seems pretty justified. She’s just started a new job, suddenly, at a law firm where her high school/college sweetheart works for. While she’s been doing her job for a while, she’s working in a pretty male-dominated field, so her fears about not being heard or seen as “a little girl playing in an old boys club” like she tells Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson), when she’s not taken seriously during a case, I would argue don’t make her less feminist–I think by telling those stories and airing those anxieties–make her more feminist. Remember the personal is political!

I also really appreciated all the lady interaction within the pilot. I love that Jane Krakow ski’s Elaine gives me shades of Jenna Maroney. And I remember that the friendship between Ally and Renee was one of my favorite parts of the show and that certainly hasn’t changed. I like that Renee really fights for Ally–in her interactions with Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith) and gives her major real talk about moving on from Billy (Gil Bellows).

Speaking of Billy, zzzzzzzzz. I understand he’s the love of Ally’s life and we are probably supposed to OTP them, but it’s boring. I think Billy seems boring and basic. I understand Ally’s continued infatuation with him, we’ve all been there, and it certainly doesn’t help that he seems to say things that just fuel the fire of Ally’s feelings. I just want to shake Ally because I want her to move on, I don’t want her to not get along with Georgia because she’s married to Billy–and I can see how that tension could potentially cause complaints about feminism of the show.

The major thing (despite my love of montages and my hatred of Ally’s inner monologue graphics) that really stood out for me happened towards the end of the episode. Ally’s walking down the street and says “the more lost you are the more there is to look forward to” and that statement really made me see the show and Ally as kind of a precursor to some of the women-centric shows we have/had now–specifically the ones that look at “messy” women.  While Ally’s certainly not perfect, nor the best feminist, revisiting the show when I’m closer to Ally’s age in some ways makes me appreciate it more.

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I can relate to still living with a roommate, being woefully single/making terrible romantic decisions, having constant career anxiety and relying on dance parties to temporarily relieve some of life’s stress. But I remember watching when I was 12 and feeling like Ally seemed super grown up and now she’s in the same boat I am and at least for the time being makes it feel more relevant than it ever did–terrible 90s outfits aside.  Maybe I’ll rewatch when I’m 40 and see how it feels then.

What did you think about this episode? Did it work for you?

Cory: It’s funny how you grow into assumptions about given pop culture touchstones without actually seeing them. I don’t know if I’ve experienced Ally McBeal outside of the most-circulated clips–so, mostly that damn dancing baby–but I still built up a number of ideas about the show. If pop culture osmosis is to believed, Ally McBeal was simultaneously the greatest thing and the worst thing, delivering unforgettable moments and wincing ones along the way. But watching this pilot, I couldn’t help but recognize how…harmless it seemed?

As you noted Kerensa, there are some moderately troubling moments here, but it’s hard to view these opening 42 minutes as a killer of feminism, singlehandedly dealing a death-blow to any women’s movements. Ally’s concerns about her body and her laser-like focus on Billy are a little much–the scene where she imagines herself with bigger breasts is especially concerning–but it’s not like this is the only show to ever portray a woman longing for lost love or struggling with her image. Perhaps when you put the whole package together–how uninterested she seems in her job, the short skirts, etc.–Ally’s representation grows into something more problematic and offensive. But even then, it’s not as bad as I expected.

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When I tried to imagine why there was such an uproar about a project like this with a lead character like this, I can guess where Ally might have ran into trouble as the first season progressed. First, the cumulative effect of Ally’s mindset and the show’s treatment of her intellectually and otherwise, couldn’t have been particularly great. Meaning, although I wasn’t horribly offended by the opening episode, I could vision a world where if I watched 12 of these episodes right in a row or even over a three-month period, I would start to grow more frustrated with Ally’s demeanor, pining over Billy or other men, and her general neurosis that at first seems not unique but at least gives her a particular perspective that serves as a nice entry point into this world. There’s no dancing baby here, nor any singing, which suggests that the show only got weirder with time. It’s telling that the show’s famous Time cover came in June 1998, in between the first and second season. With a lot of shows that hit it big in the first season, that’s about the time where full saturation exists; people start to turn on the show or find new angles on the discussion. The show also happened to come along at a very interesting moment. I’ve read a few thinkpieces and academic articles that interrogate Buffy as a feminist text that recall various interviews Sarah Michelle Gellar did where she refused to commit to any clear feminist ideology. Nevertheless, the point remains: what seems like mostly charming neurosis could very easily turn into annoyance, or worse, with prolonged exposure.

Second, there’s the issue of Kelley’s almost full control over the narrative and the character. Clearly, male writers can construct great female characters, just as females can do the same for male characters, but at least a portion of the pushback against this character, and in my mind rightfully so, came from the fact that she was written almost exclusively by a wealthy, straight, white dude. When you put Ally in that context, and you start thinking about how much this episode lingers on her daydreaming about how much a first kiss changed her life and how she didn’t even really want to go to law school but did because of a boy, then I get a little more uncomfortable with the entire proceedings. Kelley is so heavy handed with his approach to writing in general, so again, it’s not hard to imagine that him pushing this vision of a short-skirted, flighty woman who wants bigger breasts would rub people, particularly women, the wrong way.

Although the pilot ends on that hopeful message with Ally walking alone into the unknown, the show seems so empty and cold throughout. Greg German’s Richard Fish is a recognizable money-hungry lawyer type, but I felt like his final moment with Ally was more evocative of Kelley’s true perspective than Ally’s concluding monologue. The idea that piles and piles of money could solve any problem is one that Ally seems to push back against. Yet, none of these characters seem especially hurting for money, despite the fact that they don’t actually want to be doing the job they’re doing. The flashback to law school shows us that Richard didn’t want to be a lawyer, yet here he is, cashing the checks. Georgia makes an offhanded comment about not really knowing why she’s a lawyer, a feeling that Ally can reciprocate. I can understand pursuing a certain field in hopes of securing financial security (and then some), but there’s a cynicism towards the work here that’s kind of weird. I’m not sure if Ally’s neurosis and that final monologue are supposed to combat those colder moments, giving the show a more optimistic, romantic undercarriage. If they are, that approach doesn’t really work.

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In general, this world is full of people who aren’t really engaged by their job and are kind of miserable in love to various degrees, yet they’re also really wealthy too. I do know that the money was flowing pretty freely in the late 1990s, but I don’t know how much sympathy I’m supposed to feel for people like that. Television often asks us to invest in people that are kind of or even mostly awful, petty, whiny, etc. But these characters, not just Ally, push that to the limit for me. That also makes this show a bit of an outlier in the larger Kelley body of work. The characters on Chicago HopePicket Fences, and The Practice had their quirks and their soapboxes, the places where Kelley’s personal ideologies would push through, but they still felt like passionate, engaged individuals. That’s not really the case with Ally McBeal.

Conclusions on legacy: Maybe not worth the criticism of the time, but still not without its problematic spots

Previously on Test Pilot: Chicago Hope

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