The only freshman show this fall that creates its own genre — its own brave new world — is Ally McBeal. Neither comedy nor drama, Ally is the creation of writer-producer David E. Kelley (The Practice, Picket Fences) and stars Calista Flockhart as a Boston-based lawyer over whom we are supposed to marvel, ”Those eyes, those lips, that brain!” And when we get inside that brain, we see her fantasy life depicted on screen in quick, comic surrealisms.

That stylistic trick has been getting all the attention in early reviews of Ally (lonely, yearning critics across America loved writing about the scene in which Ally’s chest literally swells as she daydreams of having bigger breasts). But the series’ true attraction lies in its meticulous, even celebratory portrayal of the churning private life of a single professional woman — her doubts, her insecurities, her need for Jell-O as comfort food.

Ally has recently joined a law firm that includes her ex-boyfriend, Billy (plum-eyed, handsome Gil Bellows). She’s still a little in love with the lug, but he’s married — to another lawyer, Georgia, played by Melrose Place‘s Courtney Thorne-Smith. The show drifts between Ally’s romantic life and her courtroom cases (”date and litigate,” as one character rhymes it). A recent story line had Ally alternately loving and hating a client played by Tate Donovan (the studly voice of the recent Disney dud Hercules). In a tizzy, Ally, who’s just delivered a masterful defense speech in court, soon bemoans the fact that Tate merely pecked her on the cheek. This, after ”I let him smell me!” The cad! In Ally McBeal, the answer to Freud’s ”What do women want?” is a series of paradoxes: illicit thrills and job security; respect and ravishment.

A number of women I know are already devoted to this show; at ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY alone, I’ve been threatened by a vicious gang of female staffers who’ve vowed to hurt me if I knock Ally. There were racked sobs in the hallway the morning after Kelley, the show’s writer, took a bratty shot at EW in a recent episode. (So we never much liked Picket Fences — get over it, Dave.) It’s not hard to see what women respond to in Ally: She’s complicated, ambitious, nervy, and vulnerably ambivalent — a walking, talking cross between a Cosmo girl, a Ms. feminist, and a Sassy editor. And if the show’s female fans have no problem with the absurdly short skirts Ally wears to court, hey, who am I to suggest a certain lack of professionalism on her part?

Flockhart, a New York stage actress who turned in a fine performance as a jittery, chain-smoking alcoholic in the 1996 Showtime film Drunks, manages to give a sharp snap to Ally’s dampest speeches. And although the season is still young, it already looks as if Greg Germann (Ned and Stacey) is turning in the best supporting performance of the fall as Ally’s hilariously greedy boss, a pinstriped barracuda named Fish.

It’s a testament to the abilities of Kelley that women accept his version of their inner lives. (My wife said she’d almost rather watch the show alone, as though my unseemly male presence spoils the camaraderie Ally has with her sisterhood of viewers.) So I suppose it’s just the testosterone talking when I say I found it difficult to believe many women were identifying with Ally as she tearfully declaimed, ”All I wanted was to be rich and successful with three great kids and a husband waiting at the end of the day to tickle my feet — [and] I don’t even like my hair!”

But you know what? Not only do these flaws not matter — they add veracity to its main character’s messy, confused emotions — it all coheres; the show’s energetic fearlessness in depicting someone who is fearful in her loneliness gives Ally McBeal an overriding purpose. The result is irresistible television, whether you experience it as a sexual-differences safari or as a blueprint for your own life.

The only truly unfortunate thing about Ally is that it conflicts in this time period with another strong-female show, The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its second season has so far been fabulous — even funnier and scarier than the first. The WB is rumored to be talking about moving it to Tuesday; personally, I wish it would move to NBC and become the megahit it ought to be. Ally McBeal: A- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A-

Ally McBeal
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