nostalgia fact-check

How Does Ally McBeal Hold Up?

Photo: 20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demo, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? Our first installment: Heathers. Our second installment: Ally McBeal.

Background: Ally McBeal premiered in 1997, just after its creator David E. Kelley left day-to-day operations at Chicago Hope to begin The Practice, his much more serious other lawyer show. Calista Flockhart starred as the neurotic lead character, a Boston lawyer who finds herself working alongside her ex-boyfriend and his wife at an eccentric — so very eccentric! — law firm. Ally’s frequent fantasy sequences, cartoonish asides, and, above all, sexual politics, made it the water-cooler show of the moment, a status certified by Flockhart’s infamous appearance, in 1998, on the cover of Time magazine above the question, “Is Feminism Dead?”

Nostalgia Demo: Anyone between the ages of 15 and 35 when the show debuted.

Nostalgia Fact-Check: When I started to watch Ally McBeal, I was younger than Ally, and there were things about her that seemed cool and kind of glamorous. Remember how popular her goofy pajamas became? She wore suits every day, like a powerful grown-up. She got to run the bases at Fenway Park. Her friends liked to sing and dance and so they did, often. Now that I’m older than Ally, some of my allegiances have shifted; I still like a matching PJ set, don’t get me wrong, but Ally’s tortured lovelorn-ness doesn’t make me root for her to Just Find the One anymore. These days, I found myself rooting for Ally to Just Find Herself.

Ally McBeal isn’t really a show about a lawyer, or about Boston, or about politics, or about a woman. Ally McBeal is a show about sex, and Ally McBeal is a character who’s obsessed with romantic love. In its era, the show was a direct response to a post-Clinton crisis of pop sexuality, but now the hyperarticulated idiosyncrasies of the characters make them like just stand-ins for generic sex genres rather than people. Billy and Georgia represent married sex. Elaine represents coquettish, knowing sexuality. Richard represents voracious, slightly less conventional sexuality. Ling is female-predatory sexuality. Nelle is the good-girl-goes-bad. Cage is the gross stuff you might secretly be curious about. Renee’s the reliable booty call. And Ally is “making love,” with all the baggage and shuddering the phrase connotes.

That’s how she takes on such a Mary Sue quality — which is even more glaring now because Ally’s closest modern analogues are on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Liz Lemon: single, prone to fantasy sequences, surrounded by weirdos (and Jane Krakowski, for good measure), and portrayed by an actress whose body is subject to a grotesque level of public discussion and scrutiny. But Liz is the butt of most of the show’s jokes. Her co-workers only fleetingly respect her, and only a guy known as the Beeper King gives glowing monologues about how wonderful she is. Or take Meredith Grey: In early seasons, Meredith was completely heartsick, and week to week her professional life was just a metaphor for how occasionally miserable she was. But her closest friends call her “dark and twisty inside,” and not as a compliment. Ally’s insistence on its protagonist’s exceptionalism, whether it’s Billy’s wistful torch for her or Cage’s long-standing fascination, doesn’t translate to today all that well. It’s a trope that’s out of fashion.

Neither does the assumed titillation factor. The characters’ compulsive conversations about sex (and sexuality, sex drives, sexual harassment, safe sex, bad sex, good sex, sentimental sex, surprise sex, sex at work, sex at home, make-up sex, spontaneous sex, and fantasy sex) once seemed, yes, sexy, but they don’t anymore. They seem sort of textbook and dated. Sexual harassment lawsuits are no longer inherently baffling, and the Internet has radically diminished social stigmas associated with fetishes and fringe-y behaviors. I remember being scandalized by Ling pouring a “ceremonial” drop of hot wax on Richard before dragging her long hair all over his body. Now that just seems passé.

In the infamous, iconic Time magazine story from 1998, Ginia Bellafante wrote that “Ally … is in charge of nothing, least of all her emotional life. […] The problem with Bridget [Jones] and Ally is that they are presented as archetypes of single womanhood even though they are little more than composites of frivolous neuroses.” Ally’s neuroses aren’t exclusively frivolous, though: Find me an ambitious woman in her late twenties who doesn’t sometimes wonder or worry about what the rest of her non-work life will look like. That dancing baby isn’t just a creepy relic of 1997 CGI. It was the embodiment of Ally’s anxiety about maybe not having a child, and her confusion about how her life right then — as a single woman overly prone to clumsiness, with a new job at a new firm — would ever morph into the life she thought she wanted. That isn’t a frivolous concern. And it isn’t an anti-feminist one, either. Feminism isn’t about empowering the women who “deserve” it. Feminism is about empowering all women. Even the ditzy ones. Even the ones who don’t know the answers.

Early in the series, Georgia asks Ally what makes her problems “so much bigger than everyone else’s.” “They’re mine,” Ally replies sincerely. Bellafante cites this exchange as an example of how “offensive” the character is, how Ally’s a “frazzled, self-absorbed girl.” Maybe. But when I watched that episode a few days ago, it struck me as really gutsy thing to say and to believe. I’m not only allowed to take my own problems seriously, but I’m obligated to do so. If I don’t take my own concerns seriously, who will? Do we ever ask men or male characters, hey, why aren’t you putting other people’s needs ahead of your own?

Telling stories about women’s interior lives is a feminist act, even when those stories are imperfect. Ally McBeal isn’t the be-all end-all of pop feminism (just as a point of reference, Ally aired opposite Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sex and the City started just a year after it), but when a show says “this is how some women think about and explore sex and their sexual identities; this is how some men think about and explore sex and their sexual identities,” it forces us to reflect on it ourselves, and that can be a feminist act, too.

Ally McBeal is still a surprisingly good show, particularly in its first and second seasons. Its fantasy sequences border on kitsch, but there’s also something indelible about Peter MacNicol gazing into a mirror, bopping his head to the opening chords of “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” and getting psyched. That combination of emotions can be portrayed with more nuance and artistry, perhaps, but it’s never been done with more clarity. The legal banter is still compelling, and the questions that the show raised then are questions that still need raising. Ally doesn’t push buttons the way it once did, so now it just plays as soapy, imperfect, but enjoyable fun. Plus, I get to bust out my silly pajamas all over again.

How Does Ally McBeal Hold Up?