When good TV goes bad: how Ally McBeal lost its lust for life

We loved Ally McBeal because it wasn’t afraid to celebrate human flaws, but the death of Calista Flockhart’s one true love knocked the wind out of the show

Calista Flockhart bounced on to our screens in 1997, wearing oversized pyjamas, mouth permanently pouted in a kiss or ooh-ing along to her favourite tune, as David E Kelley’s pint-sized lawyer Ally McBeal. She opened doors with her bottom while carrying too many packages, was frequently caught out talking and/or dancing to herself when she thought no one was looking, and her reaction to finding someone attractive was usually to fall over.

She sounds annoying, but to millions of women in their 20s, she was the diminutive embodiment of our inner angst: about how to be a grown up when we felt like children; how to function single when every indication from the universe told us to couple up. Time magazine tagged her as one of the death knells of feminism, which seems harsh. But she sure was hung up on those boys. Well, one in particular.

McBeal was a legal eagle at Boston firm Cage & Fish and the cast was jammed with comic talent – the show launched the careers of Jane Krakowski, Lucy Liu and Portia de Rossi to name but three. Plus Greg Germann as Richard Fish and Peter MacNicol as John Cage formed my favourite, quip-trading TV double act of the decade.

They all got to shine, but it was the neurotic McBeal – who could barely keep her mind on the job, so busy was she swinging from the cubicles in the same-sex bathrooms and dancing away her cares about fertility – who really owned this show. In Ally’s universe, weird things happened. Hallucinations, dance routines, dream sequences, everything was possible. No 90s veteran will ever erase from their minds the image of that ghostly dancing baby who used to visit Ally’s apartment late at night, heralded by strange tribal chanting before throwing some sassy moves on her carpet and disappearing again. Yes, Ally McBeal was weird and that’s why we loved it. A show willing to portray humans as pleasingly flawed and prone to bad decisions, but somehow celebrating that, rather than passing judgment.

Then, midway through season three, the love of Ally’s life, Billy Thomas, dropped dead of a brain tumour while declaring his lifelong adoration for everyone’s favourite kooky twiglet in the middle of a court hearing, even though he’d gone on to marry someone else. Game over. The grief didn’t sit well, apart from allowing Billy to pop back and haunt Ally now and again.

Kelley tried repeatedly to reintroduce romantic tension into her life, first with Robert Downey Jr as Larry Paul. Although he was charming and cute and every bit as quirky as the legal pixie, he committed the unforgivable sin of recruiting Sting to sing Every Breath You Take to her during one of her many visits to the piano bar near work where such things were commonplace.

Larry was written out of the show shortly thereafter, but because of Downey Jr’s substance difficulties rather than crimes against music. In the last gasps, Jon Bon Jovi with a haircut was wheeled out to bedazzle Ally with his soulful sincerity, but no one’s heart was really in it by then and he didn’t even make it to season’s end. The show fizzled after five seasons when it should have kablooey-ed loudly and proudly after three. It’s always a shame when the party goes on too long. You’re drunk, McBeal. Go home.


Julia Raeside

The GuardianTramp

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