Happy birthday to Ally McBeal: a show well ahead of its time | Hannah Jane Parkinson

The ingenious ‘dramedy’ about a Boston lawyer debuted 20 years ago – and rewrote TV’s rules on race, sex and gender

In a roundabout way we have Rupert Murdoch to thank for Ally McBeal, the show about a neurotic Boston lawyer that aired on the Murdoch-owned Fox and is celebrating its 20th anniversary today. The fact that this is being marked is testament to a programme that was one of the first popular “dramedies”, with the Emmy awards struggling to decide on the comedy or drama categories (it won for Comedy in 1999). That dilemma is something that is prevalent with shows these days, proving Ally McBeal’s influence – but back then, straddling of genres was new.

I was eight when the show – created by David E Kelley – first aired: too young to catch it first time around. But in my early teens I became obsessed with it. In the pre-Netflix era, binge-watching wasn’t the universal habit it is now, but I bought all of the box-sets in an old-stock sale from Blockbusters and devoured them. Ally was the first show I pushed on friends during sleepovers, air-drumming to the theme tune – and, given that I had ambitions to be a barrister, it was aspirational. (I did do work experience in barristers’ chambers, which I loved, though it turned out a magistrates court in Birkenhead was somewhat different to those on TV.)

‘Ally was the first show I pushed on friends during sleepovers.’

In almost all ways, Ally McBeal was ahead of its time: stylistically, thematically and in what we would now call the “diversity” of its cast and subjects. Although as Riz Ahmed says, representation is a more accurate word.

This was a show that had black characters and Asian-American characters whose presence had nothing to do with the fact that they were black or Asian-American, as is too often the case. It had a genderless bathroom and featured two trans characters: the first, Stephanie, appearing in a recurring role in the first season (1997) and the next, Cindy, in 2000. The writers didn’t shy away from holding up a mirror to society’s structures and discriminations through its many case plots.

Then there was the furore about feminism. In a memorable Time cover, the magazine somehow asked: “Is feminism dead?” and put a cutout of Calista Flockhart (who played the title character) next to Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Quite aside from the lol-ness that is putting a fictional character – let alone a comic one – against, you know, Betty Friedan, I have never agreed with Time’s feminist critique of Ally McBeal, a show that frequently dealt with workplace discrimination cases, sexist dudes and Ally chucking her high heels off in discomfort.

More undermining of feminism was the media’s obsession with the fact that Ally dared to wear short skirt suits and was thin. This was a professional woman (who makes partner in the firm at the end of the show’s run) respected by her colleagues; who buys and then fixes up her own house; who has casual sex and doesn’t feel bad about it. Again, early-teens me almost saw her as a role-model, but also, not unusual. And that normality was the most important and formative thing.

Sure, Ally was quite often fixated with finding her perfect man and the ticking of her biological clock. But she never fell apart when single (see the house). She experimented with her sexuality (all in all, she managed to snog Georgia, Elaine and Ling) and had solid friendships with both men and women. Ally was not the only successful woman: you can take your pick from the many strong female leads. Richard Fish found older women attractive, becoming enamoured with “wattles” (what we’d call jowls, I guess). If anything, the relationships between the female characters were authentic, both the bad and the good.

Decades before the current debate on toxic masculinity, this issue was also explored via the character of John Cage (Peter MacNicol). In one episode, he wears a muscle body suit under his shirts to assuage his concerns about his lack of a six-pack. He was sensitive, and, with a secret hideaway to read and think, romantic too.

John Cage initiates a dance routine to Barry White.

Meanwhile, Ally was as neurotic as anything and went to regular therapy. At least two of the cast members had offscreen mental health issues during filming: Robert Downey Jr had addiction problems and Lisa Nicole Carson (Renee), who has bipolar disorder, was hospitalised during filming and recently spoke of the support she received behind the camera.

Apart from all of this, the show was fun. The writing was sharp, smart, smutty, witty, wacky – and so were the characters. Jane Krakowski, for instance, as the hilarious, attention-seeking secretary Elaine (“Whatever it was, I’m sorry I missed it”), who later went on to be just as funny in 30 Rock. The double act of Richard Fish (Greg Germann) and John Cage was a dream (see also: John’s nose whistle, tics and screams). Nell and Ling’s sizzling feud, which eventually thawed. There were hard-hitting dramatic moments, tear-jerking plot twists, but the atmosphere of warmth and fun was ever present, as in the legendary after-work bar scenes.

The musical guests were proper stars: Barry White, Tina Turner, Elton John, Sting, Gloria Gaynor, Al Green. I’d even credit Ally McBeal with my introduction to blues and jazz.

Add to this the stylistic risks and directing quirks, much emulated since. The bathroom dancing; Ally’s hallucinations (one of which, the dancing baby, originated as one of the first ever internet viral sensations); random special effects; true slapstick. The cases, too, were interesting, with many modelled on real-life events (since a commonplace trope, as with The Good Wife). I first learnt about Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat because of the show.

Robert Downey Jr and Sting – one of Ally McBeal’s numerous guest stars.

I won’t pretend that the quality of the show didn’t decline towards the end: the ludicrous decision to introduce Dame Edna Everage as a character (what? No). That pretty much killed it for me. And Jon Bon Jovi as a handyman. And Ally’s long-lost daughter (played by Hayden Panettiere, who went on to star in Heroes). As soon as a “long-lost” character is introduced, you know a show is in decline. I’m even going to admit to the fact I didn’t like the character of Billy (Gil Bellows) and was glad to see the back of him (sacrilege).

While many of the cast alumni have gone on to great things (Portia de Rossi in Arrested Development, for example), some of the actors haven’t done much since. And I’m a big fan of SNL’s send-up. But what a treasure this show was: everyone could recognise themselves in someone, with all varieties of humanity on display. I’ll even forgive Ally for being an early adopter of the adults-on-scooters trend. See, ahead of its time in all things.

• Hannah Jane Parkinson is a Guardian columnist

• This article was amended on 11 January 2018 to remove a reference to Michael Jackson appearing as a guest star on Ally McBeal.


Hannah Jane Parkinson

The GuardianTramp

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