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Upon a Rewatch: “Ally McBeal” 23 Years Later [Review]

It’s not until you go back and watch it that you realize just how much of an effect “Ally McBeal” has had on popular culture. From break out newcomers becoming Hollywood darlings to re-envisioning workplace comedies that gave birth to latter shows like “Scrubs,” all the way to the dancing “ugga chocka” baby (move over Star Lord, “Hooked on a Feeling” belonged to this baby first), the show is jammed pack with just about everything you can imagine.

This encompasses both good and bad, as the show is often more problematic in hindsight, addressing incredibly sensitive topics through the tiny insensitive lens of the 90s. And even when it’s trying to be sensitive or take a stand against certain issues, it ultimately struggles to see past its own cultural paradigms. And yet, “Ally McBeal” IS ahead of its time on some places, managing a unique balance of wild, whacky story telling that laid the ground work for countless sitcoms after it.

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I’ll admit, it’s difficult to even know where to start when it comes to unpacking the show as a whole. Every season seems to be worthy of its own singular review, and every character and performance and episode could be individualized and critiqued. I’m obviously not going to do that, so I’ll try to break the show down into the most broad strokes I can with the intent to at least touch on all the things the show does (and doesn’t) cover. We’ll review the writing and performances, the good and the problematic, and then examine seasons in lumped categories as they pertain to the show as a whole. Alright ms. Shepard! Hit those keys and let’s go down this road!

The Writer

We can’t really talk about “Ally McBeal” without discussing David E. Kelley, the writer, producer and sometimes director of the show. His television accolades are simply too large to cover here, but he is one of the few creators to have written or partly written every single episode in the entire series. Few writers are ever that involved with their work, and he did it all while running or writing for multiple shows airing at the same time, including both “Boston Legal” and “The Practice.” What makes “Ally McBeal” so unique it terms of writing is the balance between quirk, heart, and drama.

Kelley brings a strange life to the workplace of Cage and Fish, one similar to latter shows like “The Office” and “Scrubs” in the sense that everyone in it is an exaggeration of someone you may have worked with. The fact that they’re lawyers doesn’t really make the slightest difference, as all of the characters are identifiable as a familiar co-worker. Even the drama between the cast is similar to office romances, newcomers adjusting to the strange environments, and yes, inept bosses that for some reason unbeknownst to anyone still get to run things. Despite their surface level characterizations, there is a depth to almost everyone. Richard Fish (Greg Germann) may be a fast talking, chauvinistic, money grubbing boss, but there are countless episodes where his armor cracks and you see that he genuinely cares for the people in his life. Kelley is the driving force behind the show and its ultimate success, and while much of it requires a suspension of disbelief, the performances from the cast sell the hell out of the downright bizarre.

The Cast

Admittedly, this should be its own section. Not just because there are tons of stellar performances to choose from, but Kelley is well known for writing new characters into the show only to abandon them completely and never ever explain what happened to them. This happens quite often throughout the show, with some of it being a result of off screen antics and difficulties and others simply just happening due the organic nature of the overall narrative. To be clear, every single cast member (yes, even Season 5) does well here, from their guest appearances to show regulars. There really isn’t a bad performance from anyone. For the sake of time, we’ll focus on 4 key characters that really stand out.

Amazon Prime Video

We’ll start with the two guest stars that inevitably got promoted to regulars, Peter McNichols and Lucy Lui. I’ve complimented McNichols a lot in other reviews, and “Ally McBeal” is why. While his character arc changes almost completely by the end of season 4, John Cage is one of the most enjoyable characters to watch on the show. McNichols brings a charm and lovability to every eccentricity of Cage, and he’s all the more magnetic because of it. From his awkward Barry White hype dance to his fresh bowl toilet remote control to dismounts, McNichols is easily one of the strongest and most memorable characters and performances on the show.

Almost as antithesis to John Cage, Lui’s Ling is equally as charming for completely different reasons. She’s cold, very judgmental, and filterless, reproaching and spewing poignant remarks to just about everybody in the office. But even though she splashes onto the scene in season 2 as purposefully unlikeable, the nuanced performance of Lui herself expands the personality of Ling into a real human being. Even when she’s a caricature of her bitchy self, Lui also shows moments of heart and emotion, sometimes with nothing more than a simple glance. It’s no wonder her performance on the show elevated her to the forefront of Hollywood mainstream for a few years after it. She’s really that good.

And then there’s Calista Flockhart as the titular character Ally McBeal. I recognize most of us really only know her in the sense that she was on a lawyer show in the 90s, was constantly made fun of for being too skinny and then eventually married Harrison Ford. While all of that may be true, it doesn’t give her the proper credit for her work ON “Ally McBeal.” The frantic, constantly on the verge of a mental breakdown, stream of consciousness delivery of every line is just not credited enough to Flockhart’s brilliant portrayal. Ally McBeal herself lives a fantasy land to which the audience is privy to, and Flockhart delivers on every possible aspect of believability even when the writing seems to be forcing her not to be. Add in a terrific partner in Robert Downey Jr. as Larry Paul, and their chemistry is lightening in a bottle. The two as a couple are just so good together, with Downey matching every wild line of dialogue delivered by Flockhart beat for beat. Their chemistry and performance together is so good, one could argue it both saved AND ruined the show entirely (more on that in the seasons overview).

The Good, The Bad, and The Problematic

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We’ve already complimented the shows writing and cast which are both major contributing factors to the shows success. I’d only add that, overall, the show is just a really fun watch. The dialogue and characters are quirky and fun, and the workplace comedy/drama is alive and well in “Ally McBeal” 23 years after its debut. No show is perfect, however, and make no mistake, Ally McBeal has issues.

For starters, the whole characters disappearing or changing over time (which is often deliberate on Kelley’s part) does NOT lend itself to the streaming format. Binging the show makes the dramatic shifts in characters much more glaring, and the constant changing of cast members without any regard or explanation as to why definitely leaves you confused. Characters like Georgia, Mark, and even Ally’s roommate Renee all disappear from the show at one point or another, and the show carries on as if they never existed in the first place. Without a year long gap between seasons, these sudden shifts caused me to google what happened to each character that didn’t return.

Where this show really struggles is when it deals with the complex issues of the time. The cultural paradigm shifts are extremely noticeable from then to now, and while the show attempts to tackle these issues head on, you can’t help but feel unconformable watching them try today. Things like homosexuality, transgender, policing, sex and sex work are all skewed by a late 90s worldview that is simply too far removed from today to not say out loud, “You can’t do that now!”

I did that, a lot. I’m not one to jump on a cancel culture bandwagon, either. So if a show evokes that kind of response from myself, it certainly has the potential to trigger a lot of other people, particularly those who’s issues are being depicted poorly on screen. Unfortunately, “Ally McBeal” is wrought with problems like this all throughout, and while the show can still be enjoyed, I would be remised if I didn’t prepare those who wish to binge it for these problematic elements that just simply can’t be ignored.

Seasons of Love (in Ally McBeal)

Yes, I know. It’s a corny play on words. But to be fair, the entirety of the show really can be defined by the loves of Ally McBeal herself, and each season finds a new (or old) love interest with which Ally becomes caught up in. From Billy to John to the car wash guy to Larry Paul, every new season brings a new love front and center. Again, in classic Kelley fashion, some are abandoned entirely while others fade out over time. Honestly, it seems like Kelley threw away the show bible for each season and is winging it episode to episode.

Seasons 1 and 2 are probably the most alike, with the changes to the show and cast staying relatively the same. The biggest changes are additions rather than subtractions, with Peter McNichols getting much more screen time and Lucy Lui and Portia De Rossi being added to the regular roster. This is a good change, and with the exception of Robert Downey Jr. in season 4, these are probably the most consistent and best seasons of the entire show. The progression of character arcs feel organic and natural, and everyone settles in to beautiful rhythm of banter and interaction.

Season 3 gear shifts pretty hard. The show becomes more manic, the characters change dramatically from their initial conceptions and often times without warning. It also places infidelity front and center, and proceeds to bulldoze almost every relationship written from season 1 and 2. This would be fine if it didn’t feel like a reconstruction project for the majority of the first half of the season. It’s still enjoyable, but there is a noticeable difference in tone and setting. The tail end of season 3 introduces Robert Downey Jr.’s character, who’s mere presence against Ally brings a calm and direction the season. Season 4 shines with the couple put front and center. I can’t stress what a delight they are together on screen, which makes it all the more disheartening when everything we’ve seen is dismantled in a single episode.

Season 5 inevitably suffers because of Downey’s off screen antics. He was already a huge risk at this point in his career, and despite his delightful onscreen presence, couldn’t keep it together long enough to continue doing the show. Downey was whisked off to jail before the end of season 4, forcing Kelley to rewrite the entire ending a few weeks before filming, thus changing every single plan for season 5. without Larry Paul (who Ally was actually suppose to marry), the last season feels like a scramble to pick up the pieces. It’s not really even that bad, but Downey’s absence is felt enormously and no one could ever really fill the void. What’s left are recycled plots and story beats that never feel believable or natural, thus causing the entire season to suffer in ratings and critical reception, ultimately leading to the shows cancellation.

It’s so hard to not wonder what the show could have been were it to continue with Robert Downey Jr. And to be fair, if you didn’t know all of this behind the scenes stuff, you do have to give a lot of credit to Kelley for trying. That has be challenging for any writer, and Kelley’s handling of Downey’s exit only feels unnatural because we know now it wasn’t intended. Yes, season 5 isn’t nearly as good as the rest of the show, but knowing that the entire season is essentially in salvage mode, I’m not inclined to totally abandon it altogether.

Overall, “Ally McBeal” is a really fun show to revisit. Even if you only remember a dancing baby, a unisex bathroom and Barry White, it’s still worth a trip down memory lane. The show is unmistakably 90s in the best and worst of ways, and has some genuinely funny and heartfelt moments and performances all throughout the series. If for nothing else, it’s really fun to recognize now familiar faces. It’s as if any actor who wanted to be somebody someday was contractually obligated to do at least one episode of “Ally McBeal.” There are tons of “Leo pointing at the tv meme” moments, and if for nothing else that is worth revisiting.

With caution of the problematic episodes and viewpoints of the show, I would still recommend a rewatch of “Ally McBeal.”