Every decade or generation of television has that prolific producer that somewhat dominates the medium with a plethora of product that they either create or executive produce, their name being a seal of approval meaning quality and that they have been in the room with in order to help the series come to the screen.
The 70s and 80s had seen Mary Tyler Moore putting her name to not only her own comedy series, but also producing series such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, while the 90’s saw a plethora of works from Aaron Spelling, but with television creators themselves starting to become famous, there was now an emergence of superstar creators/executive producers putting their names not only to the series themselves, but also to writing an abundance of their scripts and one of the biggest of the era, putting his name to nearly every script being written for his shows, was David E. Kelley.
By the time Ally McBeal premiered on the Fox Network on the 8th of September 1997, Kelley was something of a one man television franchise, with two shows already on the air, Chicago Hope and The Practice, both of which were produced by 20th Century Fox Television but airing on differing networks, while having also created Picket Fences and co-creating Doogie Howser, MD with Steven Bochco after having made his name working alongside Bochco on LA Law.
Right away there is a more quirkier air to Ally McBeal that might have been a shock to those used to the more grittier air of The Practice, or the surgical realism of Chicago Hope, but in fact Kelley had form before in quirkier material with his CBS series Picket Fences which had ran for four seasons, prior to signing his long term contract with 20th Century Fox Television.
Right from its opening scenes, a series of flashbacks set to the tones of Vonda Shepherd, who would become a massive presence on the series, Ally McBeal was something of a departure from the more dramatic courtroom dramas of Kelley’s other big law drama at the time, The Practice. While the series’ focus on lawyers practicing the law was something of a Kelley stock in trade, there was a definite sense of difference to its tone that made it different to what Kelley was doing with his other group of good looking lawyers over on ABC.
There is a tremendous sense of pace to Ally McBeal, and right from the opening scene, Calista Flockhart’s Ally is very much front and centre of Kelley’s writing, detailing her backstory, her doomed relationship with Billy (Gil Bellows), going into law and the sexual harrasment suit that causes her to quit her current law firm before meeting up with an old law school friend, Richard Fish (Greg Germann) and starting work at his firm where, coincidentally, Billy now works. Oh, and he’s married now as well.
The first act of Ally McBeal packs in a lot and that’s even before we get to things like trials and courtroom appearances, but unlike The Practice, which started earlier that same year, a look at the inner workings of the law was the last thing that Ally McBeal seemingly had on its mind; right from the off there was a quirky surreal air to the proceedings. Relationship comedy and emotional drama were the order of the day.
Sure, we end up in the courtroom, and the series would go back to the courtroom a lot during its five season run, and the series would put focus on its cases, but this was not a show that would be preoccupied with courtroom proceedings and ethics in the manner of The Practice or the work that Kelley had delivered while writing for LA Law. In fact, many of the cases would correlate with what was going on with the characters, sometimes a little too on the nose and not in a subtle manner, but subtlety was never what Ally McBeal was about.
The ‘Pilot’ introduces us to Ally and some of the major characters that would play a big part in the series throughout its five year run, complete with the now famous use of day dream sequences which are incredibly imaginative, even if they rely frequently on 90’s CGI on a television budget, but knowing the series that would stem from it, it’s amazing to see how much of the fabric of Ally McBeal is there right from the beginning. There is a clear confidence to the tone and style here, and many of the smaller aspects that would become bigger within the series are there right from the off ; Vonda Shepherd, ‘Bygones’, ‘Fishism’, the use of a unisex bathroom.
There is a lot in the episode, and the subsequent series, that proves to be fascinating to look back on twenty two years after Ally McBeal made its debut. The series work environment, set within the law firm Cage and Fish (we’d have to wait until later in the season for Peter MacNichol’s gloriously weird and wonderful John Cage to show up) is fascinating to look at and explore, particularly in light of things like #TimesUp and #MeToo.
In fact, the sexual politics of the series was one of the most debated and controversial aspects of it back in 1997, with many commenting on the use of a unisex bathroom, the focus on Ally’s love life and the portryal of the lead character herself and the manner in which the series simply wanted her journey to be centred around her attempts at finding a man to be with. In fact, for everyone who thought the series was something of an important work of feminism (albeit one written by a man) there was a double amount who believed that it was as far from a feminist text as one could get.
The inclusion of a sexual harrassment suit brought about by Ally herself here is used as comedic fodder more than serious drama, something which cannot help but make one wince given many of the horrific stories that have come out in the past year concerning toxic work environments and sexual assault. Yes, the man in question gets what’s coming to him, but it’s hard to imagine a series in this day and age treating it as lightly as Kelley did here back in 1997.
The ‘Pilot’ takes great strides to show us a lead character who is great at being a lawyer; she’s ditzy at times in a manner that is very clearly a piece of writing written by a male writer (in fact the one thing she never does, miraculously, is fall or trip over herself physically here), but every time the series wants us to believe that she in an incredible lawyer, the voice over or plot swings back to her feelings for Billy and the “journey” to find someone.
Kelley’s handling of female characters is something of a fascinating one given that he’s the writer and showrunner of current critical darling Pretty Little Lies, a series that many believe to be a work of great importance even though it frequently bungles its handling of many of its more darker and important themes such as domestic violence and there was also the whole Andrea Arnold controversy that has kind of led to a posionous atmosphere hanging over a series that is meant to be all about feminine concerns but is only truly feminist as long as you have a male director calling the shots I guess.
Twenty two years later, Ally McBeal still remains very engaging and entertaining, but like so much television product of the time, even the great shows, one has to be willing to accept some of the more wincesome aspects. The sexual politics, which seemed daring at the time, look naive and maybe even a little offensive, yet it’s hard not to be won over by what was very much a star making performance from Flockhart, likeable chemistry with Bellows, wonderful supporting turns from Germann and Jane Krakowski and that Vonda Shepherd soundtrack which cannot help but draw you so irresistibly and, now, with a powerful level of nostalgia.
Things age and sometimes they don’t age well, that’s just part of the course of life and pop culture in general. Not for nothing do we get a hundred think pieces nowadays about how Friends is terrible (it’s just a product of its time) and so is Ally McBeal. Sometimes it’s amazing to note that the series isn’t discussed more now in light of conversations we have now about gender equality and sexual politics.
The series was an instant hit on both sides of the atlantic upon its debut. In the UK it premiered on the Wednesday, 10pm slot on Channel 4, a timeslot that it shared with ER when the medical drama finished its latest season, while in the US it became a Top 20 hit and one of the FOX Network’s top rated series, its second biggest live action series after The X-Files, and yet it disappeared from the public consciousness and not even Kelley’s comeback on the success of Big Little Lies has ignited talk of the series even though it dominated the 90s like so much of Kelley’s work.
Arguably Kelley’s best series was The Practice, which was set in the same universe as Ally McBeal and yet, McBeal herself is the series that one cannot help but want a discourse on in this day and age.
With the series finally going onto a streaming service in the UK via Amazon Prime, it might be interesting to see what a new generation of viewers will make of Ally and her journey to find someone.