Produced by David E. Kelley
Reviewed by Steven Rubio
Thursday, July 30 1998, 2:08 PM
I'm generally suspicious of the phrase "guilty pleasures." For some of us, wallowing in our neuroses, the very idea of pleasure makes us feel guilty. And guilt is subjective; not all of us feel guilty about the same things.
Ally McBeal is my most complicated guilty pleasure of the recent television season. If a television series is going to rise above the guilty pleasure, it must resonate beyond the show itself. NYPD Blue, at least in its first "Detective Kelly" season, included two characters I identified with in some ways. Detective Kelly was an existential hero who worried too much about doing the right thing, while Andy Sipowicz was a blustery fuckup who was trying to become a better person. Not exactly role models, but nonetheless fictional characters who reflected some of my own less-destructive characteristics.
I also identify with the title character of Ally McBeal. But there's nothing noble about it this time: in her character, I recognize my own neurotic self-absorption, my desire to escape into a fantasy existence, and my wish that the world would either do my bidding or leave me alone.
Recently, series creator David E. Kelley offered an enlightening and complex episode that turned Ally World in on itself for a couple of hours. Kelley constructed a "crossover" episode, where characters from another of his series, The Practice, participated in an Ally episode, with the plot continued later the same night on The Practice with Ally participating in their world. (That the two shows were on different networks was happily distressing to Fox, the Ally network, who didn't like the idea of everyone changing over to ABC at 10:00.) I had not previously seen The Practice, and so can only hint at the underlying meanings of that show. What is clear is that The Practice is a "dark" show, more like an NYPD Blue, with lots of despair and bad thoughts and legal cases that examine the meaner aspects of modern life. Which is not exactly what happens on Ally McBeal.
The characters on Ally McBeal have quirks. One senior partner has a fetish for the loose skin on the neck underneath the chin; twice he has hit on Janet Reno for this reason, and he has a long-term affair going with a judge named Whipper who is played by Dyan Cannon. His senior colleague (known as "The Biscuit") carries a remote-control toilet flusher that he uses upon entering the firm's unisex bathroom, because he "likes a fresh bowl." The chief administrative assistant concocts inventions like the Face Bra. And Ally herself sees a computer-generated dancing baby whenever she thinks about her biological clock. Ally is intended to be maddeningly adorable: she thinks mostly about herself, but we can't blame her because she's so darned cute. If we were her, we'd think about ourselves too.
Week after week, the quirky characters take on quirky legal cases for quirky clients, meeting after hours in a bar downstairs from their office to listen to half-baked blue-eyed lounge soul and dance with dorky twins who represent the best the Ally World has to offer. They may be dorky but they know how to have fun.
Why I like this show is in itself one of teevee's great mysteries. I want to say, "because it's good," but that's always a cheap copout. I fear that I like it because Ally's neuroses so closely mirror my own, only in her world quirks are cute and life is poignant without being mean.
David E. Kelley knows all of this, which is why the appearance of the "darker" characters from The Practice create such a knowing and not-quite-ironic impact on Ally World. It's as if our best friend stopped by for a visit while we were watching Ally and they took one look and said "this show isn't quirky, it's weird and awful." Suddenly they're not our best friend anymore because they've told us the truth about our guilty pleasure. The lawyers from The Practice watch The Biscuit using his remote flusher. Right away they know what any sane person would recognize from the start: these characters aren't quirky, they are weird and awful.
Ally gets the last word during the first hour of the crossover, when she seems to convince the guy from The Practice that life is more than lawyering, that you have to also have fun. And the program is so well made that as the credits come up, you believe Ally. Except this episode isn't over yet; there's still another hour, on another network, in another world that isn't anything like Ally World.
It is in this second hour, on The Practice, that Kelley rubs Ally's face in the messiness of modern life, in the process doing the same thing to Ally fans who have followed their favorite to ABC. In the first hour, the axe murder that drives the plot is played mostly for laughs, but on The Practice, the axe is driven into our collective heads. It's not funny at all, and the lawyers from The Practice, with Ally's hesitant help, pull out all the stops in the name of Doing What is Right For our Client. "You're disgusting," Ally tells one of them, to which he replies, "which is exactly why you came to me." On The Practice, they do the dirty work left behind on Ally McBeal.
It doesn't go well. The lawyers win their case, but only by driving a man to suicide. Which leads to Ally's big scene, where she announces what she has learned from her trip to another network. "I am not going to apologize for not being up for this," she says. "It's not my world - and I don't want it to be."
There is your guilty pleasure. A television program that prefers its own insular fantasy to the "real" world of a program like The Practice. We can all go back to Ally World. We've seen what's outside, and we don't want to be there. We'll return to our quirks and our navel-gazing. Once in awhile we'll remember that little vacation we had, where people used axes to kill other people, and lawyers used sleazy tactics that lead to suicides, and we'll shudder and quit thinking and thank heavens for Ally World.
And we're not going to apologize.