Played by Flockhart, Ally is a perpetual dreamer. Shes also torn between her desire to please the grown-ups and her now-you-see-it, now-you-dont feminist rage. "Shes pretty, but not too pretty," gushes Laura Morice in this months Self magazine. And shes amazingly klutzy, in a way that is supposed to be endearing - incapable of putting up a Christmas tree without falling over into it, or of clearing up a dispute without first offending everyone in the room. But above all, shes a romantic. "If women wanted to change society, we could do it," she tells her rommate Renee. "I plan to change it... Id just like to get married first."
In portraying Ally as The Vulnerable Little Feminist That Could, writer David E. Kelley seems to think that hes doing something quite revolutionary. In fact, hes playing into some prime myths about feminism, as exploded by Susan Faludi in Backlash. Chief among these is the "male shortage" myth. "Whats wrong with us?" Ally complains to Renee, going on to bemoan the fact that they cant find men despite the fact that theyre attractive and have good jobs. Ally hasnt yet gone as far as to quote to Renee from the famous Harvard-Yale study which claims that a college-educated woman has a 20% likelihood of marriage at age thirty, dropping to 5% by age thirty-five and 1.3% by forty. Thats probably because the study (which was quoted in movies from Crossing Delancey to When Harry Met Sally to Fatal Attraction) was completely discredited. In fact, as Faludi points out, the corresponding Census of the time showed that "between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-four there were 119 single men for every 100 single women." Indeed, contrary to the Fatal Attraction image of the half-crazed unwed professional woman in her thirties, studies showed that highly-paid women were eager not to get married. But it wouldnt do to have Ally as a self-assured cynic: instead, she must moon over Billy and idolize Georgia (played by Melrose Places Courtney Thorne-Smith) and wish that she had but an iota of their happiness. She must end every episode musing on the gaping hole in her life, as in the suspension episode, where she was pictured walking down a rain-soaked street with tears streaming down her face, while a voiceover sadly intoned "I know Ive got it great, really - good job, good friends, loving family, total freedom and long bubblebaths. What else could there be?"
Which brings us, perhaps, to a central irony of soap operas and long-running dramas and dramedies - that in order to ensure continuity there must be constant crisis, or at least heightened conflict. While NYPD Blue and ER are never short of murder victims and oozing flesh wounds, a dramedy mostly depends on its main characters to perpetuate the sense of crisis. With its mix of drama and comedy and its fantasy sequences, Ally McBeal is being compared most of all to the 1980s hit thirtysomething - its worth pointing out that that shows two career women, Melissa (Melanie Mayron) and Ellyn (Polly Draper) were portrayed as constantly unhappy beside their blissfully married and fecund friends Hope (Mel Harris) and Nancy (Patricia Wettig). When Ellyn and Melissa both found reasonable men and settled down, when Hopes husband Michael conquered his midlife crisis and Nancys ovarian cancer went into remission, the series died. In Ally McBeal, the entire show is predicated upon Allys very tenuous grasp on life. It will never die because Ally will always be a few cards short of a full deck. Her impulsiveness and sense of whimsy will always cause her trouble at work. The standards she holds men to are so unreasonably high (her dream lover, when its not the unavailable Billy, is Omar Sharif in Funny Girl) that shell never be satisfied with any boyfriend who comes along. And, just for good measure, shell keep doing wacky things with spermicidal jelly and Pringles. The shows writers dont have to look far for storylines because Ally is her own, self-contained crisis: everything she touches obligingly collapses. As far as series longevity is concerned, Ally McBeal must be the Fox TV executives wet dream.
All of this is bad enough, for a series that professes to be highlighting the dilemmas of a contemporary career woman. But by far the most frustrating thing about Ally McBeal (and Im not even going to dwell on the clothes she wears, or the irritating female vocalist in the bar next door to the law office, whose tie-in ballads echo Allys every feeling) is the way that it purports to deal, seriously and profoundly, with feminist issues. Practically every show sees a new issue dragged in, for Ally to growl at and chew on. There was the episode where Ally and Georgia defended a news anchorwoman suing a network for dismissal on the grounds of age (they won, because its bad for the media to be fixated on young, pretty women - an insulting irony in a show that puts Flockhart and Thorne-Smith into micro-skirts every week), and the episode where Ally and Georgia, recoiling to the very marrow of their feminist bones, represented a trio that wanted a legal threesome marriage (they lost, because its bad for a man to want two women at once - so Kelley conveniently got to champion feminism and family values all at once). In the suspension episode, Judge "Whipper" Cone (played by an admirably wrinkled Dyan Cannon, who, despite being a middle-aged district judge, is also squeezed into micro-skirts every week) regretted her decision to report Allys "erratic" behavior to the bar review board. Enlightened, Cone turned up at the hearing to shout at the board, "Why dont we admit it? She stands most guilty of being female! Young and attractive, and how dare she be aggressive on top of that!" Sorry, Fox, but you cant have it both ways. Portraying a career lawyer as a ditsy, lovelorn, marginally competent flapjack is simply not compatible with letting her off because shes a feminist. Come clean. At least let Ally attend a 12-step program for recovering feminists. "I used to be a feminist," she could sob, "until I found out that - I wouldnt be able to max out my credit card at Victorias Secret!" She would only be echoing her most ludicrous line from a recent episode - "Sometimes Im tempted to become a street person, cut off from society - but then, I wouldnt get to wear my outfits."
Oh, but its just entertainment, say the producers. And arent we bending over backwards to show the complications in the life of a modern career woman? Cant we just acknowledge that todays feminist, however idealistic, is also irresistibly drawn to Comme Des Garcons every time payday rolls around? Ok, fine. But in that case Id like to propose a corresponding new fall season dramedy. Its all about the travails of a cutely neurotic junior reporter for a regional newspaper - for arguments sake, lets call it The Diary of Wally McFail.