Ally McBeal — Going Through Motions

Richard Fish, Calista Flockheart, and Billy Thomas in FOX's Ally McBeal

Three things happened this week that unnerved me about Ally McBeal. On Monday, Weezer and I were gabbing in the hall making plans for TV watching that night. "I didn't watch The X-Files," I told him, the holidays having thrown off our Sunday schedule. "Let's watch it tonight after Melrose Place..." Then came the telling phrase, "...unless there's a new Ally McBeal."

Weezer looked at me. I nearly slapped myself. "What did I just say?" Weez smirked and ambled down the hall.

After Melrose Monday night, I kicked Weezer out so I could write, but instead I tuned in Ally McBeal. Hey, there's Ricky from My So-Called Life in full drag! (Jeez, how come guys always have the best legs?) I chafed, knowing I was sucked in. So much for writing....

Then on Wednesday, I excused myself from a conversation with a fellow editor. I meant to say, "I have to go write 'TV Eye'" but instead I said, "I have to go write Ally McBeal."

Fait accompli. I was officially hooked. Not by my own planning — the show was merely on after one that I watched regularly, exactly what programmers count on though, the slop-over effect. Worked on me, much to my discontent.

Obviously I like something about Ally McBeal, so let me see if I can figure it out. Take L.A.Law's Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey) character and give her a healthy shot of Mary Richards' (Mary Tyler Moore) angst and eagerness to please, and plop her into a Dream On-like premise in a law firm. Yep, sounds like a winner.

Doe-eyed Calista Flockheart is an extremely appealing young actress, her tentative courage striking a familiar chord in many who find the world of work and big business intimidating. As freshman attorney Ally McBeal, her vulnerability is ever-present, worn like a heart exposed on her well-tailored sleeve. At work, McBeal is surrounded by overbearing boss Greg German (Richard Fish), a sly co-worker named Elaine (Jane Krakowski), childhood sweetheart Gil Bellows (Billy Thomas), and sweetheart's new wife/fellow attorney Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith, who made a daring break from Melrose Place). Away from work, an effervescent roommate Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson, who also plays Carla on ER) plagues Ally with her pointed but loving commentary. Semi-regulars include the Dancing Twins (Eric and Steve Cohen), acerbic attorney Caroline Poop (Sandra Bernhard), aging sexpot judge Whipper Cone (Dyan Cannon), oddball lawyer John "The Biscuit" Cage (Peter MacNicol), and the anonymous Singer (Vonda Shepard, who does the show's rousing theme).

To say that the cast is charming is an understatement. The kind of chemistry involved getting the right personalities into a cast is akin to alchemy, but Ally McBeal has found a successful formula. It's not all gimmick, with Ally's Walter Mittyish responses to the pitfalls of life and love — being shot through the heart with arrows as Gil updates Ally on his marital situations, or being tossed into a dumpster as a much-anticipated date turns into disaster.

It's reassuring to see FOX develop a show like Ally McBeal. I would never pretend that a show like Melrose Place is anything but pure entertainment, but programming like Ally McBeal is like the first warm breeze after a cold winter. It's gentle and thoughtful, witty and warm, even when its topics are less than heart-warming, such as when McBeal sat in a deposition and watched Cage pick his nose.

Still, it wasn't until last Monday night that I knew I was in love with the show. Actor Wilson Cruz, who had played the gender-bending Rickie on My So-Called Life was playing a transvestite prostitute busted and thrown to McBeal's care. Diplomatically, she steers her unwilling client to an insanity plea, and without realizing, develops a protectiveness for him that goes beyond her admiration for his dress-making skills.

I was watching the show, acutely aware of the dangerous addiction-edge from which I was watching it. I tried not to pay such close attention... and almost succeeded until the call came that Cruz's prostitute was dead, murdered in the line of work. Then I sat glued to the rest of the show, waving the white flag and ready to begin the 12-step program. "Hello, I am Margaret, and I am hooked on Ally McBeal." It is the first victory of the 97-98 prime-time season in my household.

After the cartoon survey of a few weeks back, I gave them up except for Beavis & Butt-head and South Park. I posted a new survey for what I called "Desert Island TV Shows," the idea being that if you could bring only 10 television episodes with you on a desert island, what would they be?

I got a five lists with DITV and nine more lists of cartoons. When I said that we love our cartoons, I wasn't exaggerating. Neither the Chuckles the Clown episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, nor the last M*A*S*H, nor that episode of Ellen, nothing seems to come close to readers' hearts as animation. So, please, let's continue the dialogue about wascally wabbits and other critters dear to our hearts. Just tell me about the DITV shows, too.

Speaking of Mary — and somehow, she will always be a beacon of light to this column, perhaps even its patron saint — with no effort to cast any kind of socially redeeming light on it, The Mary Tyler MooreShow, pure and simple, is my favorite all-time TV show. It was brilliantly conceived, executed with self-consciousness, cast to perfection, and had the most literate script-writing in a comedy since The Dick Van Dyke Show (another one of the best shows ever, especially in re-run).

I had always admired Moore and then-husband/producer Grant Tinker for not having bowed to pressure to continue TMTMS. They ended the show after seven seasons, and left with the kind of grace that shows like Roseanne and Newhart strived to match upon their demises. It would have been so easy to drag it out until it lost steam, à laMurphy Brown.

But the news that Moore was returning as Mary Richards with her TV-show best friend Rhoda Morganstern (Valerie Harper) was only marginally heartening. They'll be much older (duh!) and both have twentysomething daughters named after each other. Mary and Rhoda — together again! So why does it strike fear in my heart?

Desert Island TV shows? Hmmm... if you had only 10 shows to bring with you, which ones would it be and why? Episodes only, no series. Write to: [email protected]

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