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
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
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?