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Pop CultureOctober 17, 2018

Ally McBeal was peak nineties


Unisex bathrooms, weird homophobia and even weirder visual effects. Sam Rutledge revisits the simultaneously regressive and progressive Ally McBeal.

“Men are like gum anyway – after you chew a while they lose their flavour.”

Calista Flockhart’s titular Ally McBeal delivers this line in 1997 with all the guts of someone who has had absolutely enough right now, and in 2018 I feel a familiar stirring that goes along the lines of “oh no I love her”.

Ally McBeal, and also me whenever anything remotely inconvenient happens.

It’s been 21 years since Ally McBeal first aired, and until now I’d gone 21 years without seeing anything more than a few clips on YouTube. I decided to rectify that, because based on simple logic (girl lawyer), the show is right up my alley. Now I have no interest in being a lawyer myself because I’ve heard that being loud and right is, disappointingly, not the crux of uh, “lawyering”.

But I love a good lawyer show. I like to tell people that everything I’ve learned about American law I’ve learned from Twitter and The Good Wife, which could be funny but is mostly just true. I want to say I learned something about the law from watching about three seasons of Suits, too, but in reality they use the term lawyer very loosely over there and it is mostly a show about its title and also doing crimes.

But bringing it back in, Ally McBeal (the show, not the person) has more than a tenuous grasp on the law, even if the law isn’t really its focus. It also has a baller opening credits sequence that really gets you hype.

I miss when we used to have a whole credits sequence for TV shows (listen I also use the “skip intro” function on every streaming service that exists, that is not the POINT), especially because it looked like every show was using Windows Movie Maker for the very first time. I have such a nostalgic feeling every time I watch credits from the late 90s, because I too was learning how to use Windows software without a great deal of success.

We open the pilot episode with Ally talking about her first kiss with her childhood sweetheart Billy. After a few weird moments of kids kissing in close ups we find out they broke up after Ally followed him to LAW SCHOOL, oh girl.

Then in the present day when she calls out workplace sexual harassment – this is timely, AND her office is as opulent as the damn White House for some reason – she ends up essentially getting fired for it. In an amazing twist of happenstance, Ally winds up at the exact law office her ex-boyfriend Billy works at now. Present day Billy has TERF bangs and a very oval head and I can already tell I’m not going to like him.

Thankfully he fixes his hair pretty quickly. I think he heard me.

Calista Flockhart is instantly charming as Ally. She’s sharp and funny and Buffy-esque in her manner, and it makes me wonder why she hasn’t been more high-profile. Like what’s happened to her? Is she okay? What does she do now? Is she still married to Harrison Ford? We have to find out.

Lucy Liu’s first memorable screen appearance as Ling Woo.

The rest of the cast has plenty of recognisable faces too – Greg Germann plays senior partner Richard Fish, which has to be a writer’s room joke; Christina Ricci, Robert Downey Jr and Heather Locklear all make memorable appearances, and Lucy Liu and Portia De Rossi join the cast later on in the series.

I would also be completely remiss if I didn’t mention Jane Krakowski, who plays Ally’s assistant Elaine. Jane Krakowski is legendary no matter where she’s putting her talents, but I miss Jenna Maroney every single day of my miserable post-30 Rock life and seeing her face again has made me feel real, tangible joy. Elaine is young and peppy and immediately my favourite character. Ally hates her for no real reason from the get-go, I assume because she’s another woman who is good at her job, and I hope that the more of this I watch the more they become friends. Hating other women isn’t very post-feminist of you, Ally!!

Can you hear Muffin Top playing softly in the distance?

Update on Calista Flockhart: she is still married to Harrison Ford and she most recently starred in Supergirl, a show about Supergirl. Glad we cleared that up.

Like all of David E Kelley’s shows, Ally McBeal has a lot of bold, agitated camerawork and tall blonde women. It also loves fantasy sequences, which honestly I feel we no longer utilise enough, and funny sound/visual effects, which I think we’re doing okay without.

David E. Kelley is also responsible for The Practice (which crossed over with Ally McBeal on more than one occasion), its spinoff Boston Legal, and more recently the miniseries Big Little Lies. The last one seems well divorced from the rest of his repertoire but it did have a lawyer in it (Nicole Kidman). To me he’s like Aaron Sorkin lite, which I don’t think his shows suffer for at all, but they do still have that walk-and-talk, rapid-fire quality that makes them fun if a little nauseating to watch. And hard to binge. I’ve had to take several breaks from this show and I’m not even a full season in yet.

I have no adequate explanation for this.

Like a lot of shows of this era, Ally McBeal is recent enough to feel like it wasn’t on all that long ago, but a lot of its particulars have aged… horribly. There’s plenty of misogyny from the female characters even while Ally is in the middle of lamenting how women shouldn’t have to suck up to men to get ahead, and even in a show that has a lot of lawyer stuff in it I think it struggles to pass the Bechdel test most of the time. Ally McBeal’s women love their men and their men love to range from boring to terrible to just fine.

Ally McBeal’s storylines often skewed towards discussions of gender and sexuality, but from what I’ve seen it wasn’t that interested in exploring what might happen outside of the heterosexual male/female binary (at least not in any way that doesn’t reinforce that binary as the norm).

It’s disappointing, but to give credit where it’s due it did at least talk about it, instead of doing what most shows in the late ’90s did and pretend gay people didn’t exist at all. If the show were to be made now I’d like to think it would do better. I have to hope that it would do better, because the alternative is bleak.

One thing the show did right with completely the wrong intention, and what seems to be an enduring memory from people I’ve asked about the show, is its unisex bathroom. When Ally first starts working at her new firm, her boss makes a point to mention that there’s no separate male/female bathroom, something that I wouldn’t even have picked up on had a whole joke not been made out of it.

In 2018 non-gendered bathrooms aren’t – and shouldn’t be – considered a big deal, but a big deal sure was made whenever one character followed another of a different gender into the bathroom on the show. It was a bizarre device and a lot of bizarre scenes seem to have sprung from it if the screencaps I saw on Google are any indication.

As for whether it holds up overall, I think it does. There are plenty of shows in 2018 that still have poorly finessed gender politics and boring men and plenty of people watch them, so if you’ve been wondering whether now is the time to pick it up I say go for it. Personally I’ve heard some stuff about a dancing ghost baby so I’m excited to continue this weird journey into Ally McBeal’s unknown.

Keep going!