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History of TV: No Objections To the Zaniness of Legal Dramedy 'Ally McBeal'

February 11, 2021
3 min read time

There was The Practice and then there was Ally McBeal. The story is that Fox originally conceived the whimsical legal dramedy as a way to keep female viewership firmly planted on the couch after that other ‘90s schmaltz-fest (and I say that with love), Melrose Place. Legal shows will never go out of style; Boston Legal, The Practice, Suits, Law & Order are case in point, with season after season of one-hit wonders sprinkled among those with staying power: Fairly Legal, For The People, Chicago Justice, and the grandfather of them all; L.A. Law, which paved the way for current incarnations.

So what was it about the law that was (and still is) so fascinating? In terms of Hollywood, the people who make and uphold those laws. And in the case of Ally McBeal, the weird and wacky Ally herself. But was she wacky? Or just “real” compared to what we were used to seeing onscreen? I, for one, live to my own personal soundtrack, don’t you?

Mixing genres

The comedy/drama/fantasy also has musical and romance listed under genres on IMDb. It’s not that the show couldn’t decide what to be, it’s that it was so good at seamlessly mixing elements to be something that was truly entirely its own. The fantasy elements and musical numbers were used to elevate an episode’s theme, while the show itself wasn’t so much about the legal proceedings as those proceedings were used to highlight a character’s personal life and choice.

But without all the trappings of dancing babies (for reals), somersault dismounts (nicely done, Peter MacNicol) from the unisex bathroom stalls, and fantasy sequences, Ally McBeal was a love story between a leading lady and who she was growing up to become.

“I’ve made mistakes in my life that I just can’t hide” Vonda Shepard sings in the Ally theme song, “Searchin' My Soul.” Twenty-somethings at the time probably had this playing on loop. And Ally made plenty of mistakes; in life, at work, with the love of her life, Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows) and the suitors that followed. And lastly, with her unexpected, twist-of-TV-fate daughter (a fresh-faced Hayden Panettiere) whom when she meets her, Ally promptly faints. The sure-fire Ally McBeal sign that she was truly in love. The most poignant takeaway I had when the show originally aired was that as an adult, it was possible to make mistakes. As gasp-worthy as that sounds, it was refreshing for the time.

Quirky characters

Ally kept picking herself up and trying again. She kept trying to find herself, find love, and find her place at work. Her character (and those orbiting her existence at the law firm of Cage and Fish) was both sexist and feminist, depending on the day and the person you’re asking; high hemlines, the unrelenting search for true love, unisex bathrooms, male versus female  there’s a lot to unpack through the modern lens. Ally was both touted as a setback for feminism for her “emotional instability” and inability to leave emotions out of the workplace especially, yet she also proves the case for it in that the show depicted them so vividly in a way that made it “okay”  even though that shouldn’t have been a discussion in the first place. Even Time got in on the argument with one of its 1998 covers, with “Is Feminism Dead?” printed next to a picture of Ally McBeal.

Ally could not have survived in the zeitgeist alone without her quirky co-workers and lovers. Together, they won a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series (1999). Richard Fish (Greg Germann), Georgia Thomas (Courtney Thorne-Smith), Elaine Vassal (Jane Krakowski) all made their fair contributions to the show’s overall zaniness. It also made the names Lucy Liu (as Ling Woo), Portia de Rossi (Nelle Porter), and James Marsden (Glenn Foy) just that much more recognizable. Create the weirdness and they will come… including Robert Downey Jr. and a slew of famous musical guests.

Music

Music went beyond the catchy theme song to being an integral part of the show, most often through the fantasy sequences or in the form of the piano bar Ally and her associates would frequent after work. Vonda Shepard, the siren behind the theme song, became a regular (season) fixture at the bar and her lyrics often resonated with the episode’s theme, magically aligning with Ally’s feelings. The characters would sing (James Marsden, who knew?) and the musical guests were even more over the top: Tina Turner, Elton John, Gloria Gaynor, and Mariah Carey among others — and Josh Groban so enthralled series creator David E. Kelley that Kelley wrote him a role in the show.

In a show that unabashedly mixed genres, it’s unsurprising that it used another art form so voraciously to heighten theme and emotion, thereby pushing the story itself beyond the limits of a courtroom drama.

In retrospect

Ally McBeal received an impressive 115 award nominations over its five-season run, winning multiple Golden Globes®, including for Best Television Series  Comedy or Musical three times (1998, 1999, 2001). It also achieved the impressive feat of crossing networks through crossover episodes with that other David E. Kelley property, The Practice, before world-building in this way was really a thing. While not faultless, Ally McBeal was a unique gem worthy of character study and how to cross genres the right way.

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