Ally McBeal Mopes, Yearns, and Aches in Season Two

This is the second season of Ally McBeal to be made available individually after the entire series was released in October 2009. For those who found the packaging for the complete set to be less than desirable or for those who find it easier to buy the series one season at a time, this individual release provides a great option.

Ally McBeal was an instant critical and popular success when it debuted in the fall of 1997 and remained so for its first three seasons. Most fans agree that the show went into a steep decline in the final two seasons, but whether one agrees or not with that assessment, one cannot deny that viewership fell off dramatically towards the end and FOX was forced to cancel it. However, there is likewise virtually no debate that in Season Two the show was at its creative peak.

Season Two of Ally McBeal could well in fact be, along with Season Three, the finest of the series. Most fans of the show feel that it became a tad too precious in the final two seasons, while the first season, as fine as it was, did not feature as strong a cast as the next two. The writing remained as sharp as the debut year, but benefited by excellent additions to the cast.

Season Two saw the introduction of two new characters that were central to the show’s success, both of whom would enrich the series and add to the already strong group of female characters. Portia DeRossi came on board as the new attorney Nell Porter, who unexpectedly and perhaps a bit implausibly became the romantic interest for Peter MacNicol’s John Cage. Playing a character less eccentric than her subsequent roles on Arrested Development or Better Off Ted, she was intended as a sane, unflamboyant foil to John, who was all quirks and weirdness.

The only real problem with her character was the nonexistent romantic chemistry between her and John. Ally McBeal is a show on which the writers (mainly David E. Kelly) often took risks. The pairing of Portia and John was one of the risks that didn’t really pay off.

The other major addition to the cast was Lucy Liu — an unknown at the time (in a groundbreaking role for Asian actresses on mainstream TV) — as the surreally acerbic and litigious Ling Woo. A recurring guest star at first, she was quickly made a full-time cast member. Liu’s character was a beautiful as she was acerbic, and her character’s skill set was apparently without limits. The ongoing jokes for her character revolved around her belligerence (a growling lion or tiger was routinely used on the soundtrack as she scowled at people saying anything that challenged or threatened her) on the one hand and her ability to do absolutely anything — from being a crack attorney to being a superb ballroom dancer to being something of a madam running a male escort service — on the other. Her character was not merely funny, but one of the first significant characters played on American TV by an Asian actress.

There is a rather mixed message at the heart of Ally McBeal, a rather troubling continuation of the Disney myth, with a twist, with a twist: if you are a woman, someday your prince will come, and you are nothing if he does not (the male counterpart being that you should not settle for less than a princess in your love life). This is a slightly less nefarious than the central idea in the reviled television series thirtysomething (possibly the series most hated by TV Studies scholars, especially those with an interest in issues concerning women), which was that only “nesting” women could be happy, while professional women were invariably doomed to find life unfulfilling and tragic.

Ally McBeal‘s message is a slightly updated version of this. Although a successful litigator in a prestigious Boston law firm, Ally (Calista Flockhart) leads a rather melancholy life because she can’t find a man. Throughout Season Two Ally mopes. Ally yearns. Ally aches. Ally perpetually waits for her prince to come. Or she pines quietly for the man who got away (her ex-fiancé, who is not merely one of her colleagues, but married to another attorney in the firm).

I’m not saying that TV should never express romantic yearning. It’s clearly a major component of the human experience and perhaps even most good shows have a romantic aspect. On Ally McBeal, though, the constant theme is that no matter what else happens in Ally’s life, she is doomed unless she finds the right guy. It’s presented as a stark either/or: either you find true love or you are a failure. Finding Mr. Right is the answer to whatever ultimate question life asks. In the first two seasons she does not find that man, hence the show’s pervasive melancholy.

Contrast this with another major female character on another series, one that ran concurrently with Ally McBeal. One reason — among a score — that Buffy the Vampire Slayer resonated so powerfully with many viewers was how fulfilled Buffy Summers is as a person. This is far from saying that she has no troubles. Compared to Buffy, Ally has in fact no real troubles to speak of.

Buffy has to shoulder mammoth responsibilities far beyond what anyone her age should be expected to, from struggling with the fact that she has a calling in life with a ludicrously high mortality rate (i.e., vampire slayer), to having pressing money problems, to having her long-term life plans short-circuited by her calling, while at the same time having the same kind of romantic frustrations that Ally has.

However, while Buffy understandably would like things to improve in her life situation, the viewer never senses that she is merely waiting for a guy in her life to make it complete. She has a vocation and a chosen family that makes her life rich and fulfilled. If she can find a man, so much the better, but her life isn’t defined by the presence or absence of a man in her life.

Ally on the other hand is an unfulfilled woman who will only find fulfillment and cease moping if she finds the right man. Buffy is a fulfilled woman whether she finds the right man or not. Ally’s professional accomplishments are entirely canceled out by her inability to find a man.

It was both one of the joys and and one of the sorrows of Ally McBeal that it was a show that took risks. With risks comes pluses and minuses. I personally cut any show a lot of slack for taking risks (which is why I have enjoyed, for instance, the risk-taking Stargate Universe far more than the risk-avoiding Stargate SG-1). While not all of the gambles pay off, many of do, such as Ally shrinking down to Tom Thumb-size when feeling shame or shot full of arrows when she is emotionally crushed or turning beet red when feeling embarrassment.

There is no question that some of the risks fall flat. I never on any level became reconciled to the unisex restroom. The uni-john at best seems precious. Adding such elements as John Cage’s dismounts or his remote clicker that flushes a toilet as he enters the restroom in order to provide him with “a fresh bowl” — though how he knew ahead of time that a particular stall would be unoccupied is a mystery — moved the whole locale to a realm of absurdity.

A more serious and systemic weakness in the show stems from its bland male characters. They were, at best, a vapid lot indeed.

The head of the firm, Richard Fish, with his obsession with women’s “wattles” (neck flaps) and therefore especially with older women (the whole “wattles” thing is another instance of the show going wrong when taking risks – Janet Reno’s guest appearances on the show provided some truly cringe-worthy moments) is even from the beginning something of a nonentity, despite being ostensibly the male lead. Gil Bellows as Ally’s former fiancé merely expands the male void at the heart of the show.

Peter MacNicol’s John Cage provides many of the show’s more entertaining moments and was one of the more memorable off beat characters on TV from the past couple of decades, but he achieves this in part by being a sexually neuter supporting character. The show’s producers would later try to fix things by bringing in Robert Downing Jr. as Ally’s love interest (his stint on the show was complicated by his well-publicized drug problems, which reached their peak at this time and threatened to end his career) and also having Gil Bellows leave the show was obviously intended as an attempt to “fix” the male cast. Alas, it was a problem that the show never successfully addressed.

This is a bare bones DVD release. The set features no commentaries, no documentaries on either the series as a whole or on the individual season, nothing on the music in the series, no interviews with the producer or actors, no blooper reel, no audition tapes, no.. well, no nothing. Still, given the low cost of the set one can easily be reconciled to the lack of special features.

Besides, the producers of the set had already given lovers of the show something better than special features: all of the show’s original music. The delay in obtaining rights for the music lay behind the tardiness in releasing the show on DVD. Fans had long worried that the series might be released with some of the original music replaced with less costly substitutes. This has happened with other shows, most lamentably Northern Exposure. Few shows have had specific music so completely integrated into the show as a whole. Perhaps only Eli Stone and Glee are more tied to specific songs than was Ally McBeal.

One suspects that when music rights for the more recent series were negotiated, the DVD rights were arranged, as well. Ally McBeal was pre-DVD, in that shows going to DVD at the time were relatively rare. Rights only had to be obtained for broadcasts and syndication. Having the original music for Ally McBeal — and the music is so tightly integrated that not having it would have been tantamount to not having the DVDs at all — more than makes up for the complete lack of extras, even though extras would have been nice.

Barebones or not, putting Ally McBeal on DVD fulfilled a huge demand. For several years the show was widely considered to be one of, if not the best, show never to have been made available on DVD. Now that distinction passes to some other series – perhaps Malcolm in the Middle, for example.

Ally McBeal is certainly not a perfect show. A lot of people whose taste in television I trust a lot have told me how passionately they dislike the show. For fans of the show – and I definitely count myself among them, despite my quibbles – these discs truly answer a deeply felt need.

RATING 8 / 10