Why ''Ally McBeal'' struck a nerve -- Before getting Fox's gavel, the dramedy touched America's working women at their soft spots
Calista Flockhart, Ally McBeal
Credit: Ally McBeal Illustration by Robert Risko

When ”Ally McBeal” debuted in 1997, it became an instant watercooler lightning rod. People either loved or hated how the legal dramedy mixed romantic whimsy, loopy fantasies (e.g., Ally’s breasts swell to Dolly Parton proportions), and playful musical interludes. Like it or not, creator David E. Kelley’s quirky series — starring the equally controversial waif Calista Flockhart — played by its own rules. ”It was groundbreaking,” says Alex McNeil, author of ”Total Television.” ”Audiences were growing tired of the same narrow characters…the ones who would never do anything wrong. Kelley deserves points for doing something offbeat.”

Alas, even trailblazers burn out, and on April 18 Fox announced the end of the ratings-anemic ”McBeal” (viewership has dropped 24% this season among 18- to 49-year-olds). But before Vonda Shepard warbles her last notes on May 20, let’s grab a latte and reminisce about what made ”Ally” unforgettable.

POSTFEMINIST SOUL-SEARCHING As smart and successful as she was whiny and desperate for marriage, Ally sparked a national discussion about the state of modern feminism, even appearing on the cover of Time. What does it say when a woman wears a micromini hoping to sway a judge’s opinion? Or when her fragile emotional state pushes her to trip the woman who’s snagged the last can of Pringles? It says: This is a character TV has never seen before.

DAMN-THE-TORPEDOES CASTING Even if you don’t count the hiring of Lisa Nicole Carson (who, in early 2000, reportedly called a tabloid, claiming to have smoked a PCP-laced joint and calling herself ”a superbad bitch”) as Ally’s roommate, and renowned addict Robert Downey Jr. as an Ally love, Kelley and company should be commended for their eyebrow-raising casting. Few shows could boast such varied guest stars as Sting, Christina Ricci, Rosie O’Donnell, Dame Edna, Mariah Carey, Paul Reubens, and Jon Bon Jovi.

BONES OF CONTENTION Flockhart’s gaunt appearance at the 1998 Emmys sent the media into a tizzy over her eating habits. Soon after, an L.A. TV station erroneously reported she had checked into a clinic for eating disorders. Flockhart, who argued she merely had small bones, tried to fight back: ”It’s society’s obsession with my weight that’s the problem.” But her on-set collapse two years later — officially blamed on ”exhaustion and dehydration” — did little to squash rumors.

THE WATTLE Where would we be if Ally’s freakazoid boss Richard Fish (Greg Germann) had never introduced us to the wattle, that patch of skin dangling just under a (usually older) person’s neck? Fish’s fetish — which he first indulged with costar Dyan Cannon — hit its apex when he got within gullet-tickling distance of Janet Reno.

THAT DANCING BABY Software company Kinetix created Web star Baby Cha-Cha, but ”Ally” brought him into the mainstream. The computer-generated toddler — a metaphor for Ally’s rapidly ticking biological clock — appeared in enough guest spots to spawn a cottage industry (Baby Cha-Cha boxers, anyone?), inspire imitators like Rasta Baby and Drunken Baby, and irritate millions unnerved by the sight of a diaper-clad urchin dancing to Blue Swede’s ’74 chart-topper ”Hooked on a Feeling.”

Ally McBeal
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