The Good: Funny, Clever, Excellent character development, Good cases, Compact packaging.
The Bad: No DVD bonus features.
The Basics: A perfect season of television, Ally McBeal Season Two on DVD lacks flash, but succeeds with character.
Some seasons of television are so good that when they are released on DVD, we pick them up and celebrate regardless of the fact that the DVD presentation is sadly lackluster. When Ally McBeal “The Complete Series” (reviewed here!) was released in time for Christmas a few years back, many people who know me were surprised by how I did not ultimately recommend the massive boxed set. The reason for that was simple: the show had two great seasons, a season that was good, and a shaky first year and a completely abysmal final season. The show self-destructed, imploded and did other similar clichés of collapse. But, with Ally McBeal Season Two which was released separately on DVD recently, David E. Kelley Productions has a real winner, even if the DVD presentation is nothing at all extraordinary.
Ally McBeal has been slow in arriving on DVD for a simple reason: the music. The show frequently featured Vonda Shepard performing cover versions of classic songs and while the series got clearances for the production of the episodes, they did not always get them for the video rights and securing them at a reasonable price, along with clearances from musical artists who appeared on the show, like Barry White and Al Green, have taken quite a bit of time and finagling. The result, though, is that Ally McBeal Season Two has arrived on DVD with all of its original music intact, where it belongs, with nothing added or removed. Unfortunately, there are also no bonus features for fans of the show to get excited about. At least the set does not take up much space on the shelf and does not cost all that much.
In the second season of Ally McBeal, Ally continues therapy and trying controversial cases as an associate at Cage & Fish law firm in Boston. Working alongside the love of her life, Billy, becomes somewhat easier when the firm is distracted by the arrival of new lawyers Nelle Porter and Ling Woo. Interoffice romance flies as Nelle and Cage hit it off and Richard Fish and Ling find themselves interested in one another. The office heats up when Billy finds himself jealous of Ally’s relationship with Dr. Butters after she goes through a string of bad dates. This threatens to tear apart Billy’s marriage to Georgia and the friendship Ally and Georgia had developed.
The trials this season tend to focus on the personal, as opposed to corporate or criminal law. So, for example, Cage takes a case involving a restaurant that serves horsemeat to its clients without their express knowledge and Ally tries to mediate between a priest and his choirgirl mistress. The cases range from the bizarre – a man who chopped off his dead wife’s hand to keep with him after the fact – to the absurd – a sexual harassment case that comes from “day at the beach” casual Fridays and almost every one mirrors the current events in the relationships of people at the firm of Cage & Fish. As cases are won and lost by the firm, tensions mount outside the courtroom from the behaviors of the lawyers which are less than professional more often than not.
In its second season, Ally McBeal makes the successful transition from often-maudlin soap opera to genuine comedy. It is a comedy where the humor comes organically from the character dysfunctions and the verbal banter between the characters at the office and especially in the courtroom. The absurd characters who work at Cage & Fish are mirrored by equally strange clients who often have personality ticks of their own and make the cases interesting as well as overtly humorous. But beyond that, Ally McBeal succeeds in its second season because it is not mired in dated material (though there is a preoccupation with sexual harassment that was common in the 1990s and more than one Bill Clinton joke) and because the characters actually progress.
As a result, the second season actually feels different from the first and viewers are not trapped either in the constant melodrama of Ally’s romantic attraction to the unattainable Billy or the simple preoccupation with c.g. special effects for Ally’s flights of fantasy. This was the season where the show seemed to finally get that virtually every character at Cage & Fish was more interesting than the title character. So, just as for many, the highlight of Frasier (reviewed here!) was arguably the Niles and Daphne relationship, in the second season of Ally McBeal, Cage, Fish, Nelle, Elaine and even Ling begin to rule and Billy and Georgia only pick up episodes as the season progresses and the writers seem to realize they have largely been left behind.
As with all great television, Ally McBeal is primarily character-driven. So, while each episode sees a new court case and a parade of guest characters who come through the firm, the heart of the show is with the emotional struggles of the characters. In this season, the primary characters are:
Ally McBeal – An associate lawyer at Cage & Fish, she has realized that things with Billy are likely never to be more than friendly and has begun dating a lot of people. After a string of bad dates and inappropriate attractions (like to a minor who the firm is representing), Ally finds herself attracted to Dr. Butters. Things with Butters go very well until Billy becomes jealous and Ally and Billy have a near-miss on an affair, which forces Ally to continue looking for a partner again,
Billy Thomas – Working alongside his wife, Georgia, and Ally has become less traumatic as the three have become friends and have a repartee which has developed. But seeing Ally with Butters stirs up his old feelings for her and threatens his marriage, prompting him to make a decision on what direction he wants his life and marriage to take,
Georgia Thomas – Begins to feel like a tool for becoming Ally’s friend when Ally betrays her by kissing Billy. Still, she is professional most of the time and sides with Ally in instantly hating Nelle when she appears,
Richard Fish – Eager to make more money than ever, he hires Nelle and later Ling in an attempt to boost profits. Callous and generally happy to play the field, he finds himself drawn to Ling and eager to pursue a relationship with her,
Renee – Ally’s roommate, she often acts as a prosecutor in cases Cage & Fish are representing. She becomes flirtatious with Butters, much to Ally’s annoyance,
Elaine Vassal – The firm’s legal assistant, her hopes for love with a magazine writer/editor named George are dashed when he appears attracted to Ally. She adapts by developing the “face bra” to prevent face sagging and she struggles to market it most of the season,
Nelle Porter – A blonde rainmaker whose presence immediately threatens most of the women at Cage & Fish, she is strong, efficient, legally brilliant and emotionally cold. When John Cage finds himself “drawn to her,” she begins to reciprocate in the most unlikely pairing imaginable,
Ling Woo – Nelle’s best friend, she leaves her promotional jobs to practice law again at Cage & Fish. She is put off by Cage, but finds herself attracted to Fish, despite his weird advances. She, too, is legally brilliant, but largely unliked at the office,
Vonda – She plays music at the club in the downstairs of the building Cage & Fish’s offices are in,
And John Cage – the heart of Cage & Fish, he is a brilliant lawyer, but is very eccentric. As a result, he stutters, is easily flustered and takes up such hobbies as raising a frog for competitive leaping. He is deeply emotive, but often alone. He is Ally’s most trusted confidant outside Renee and is invaluable to her as he shares her lack of touch with reality. As he approaches thirty-five, he finds himself attracted to Nelle and is surprised when she seems to reciprocate his feelings.
In the second season, Ally McBeal does not rely on gimmicks like guest stars who are highlighted or crossovers with The Practice to drive ratings up or bring attention to the show. As a result, this becomes a wonderful character study of some very lovable, very weird lawyers plying their craft and keeping equally eccentric people out of jail.
On DVD, there are no bonus features, so this boxed set offers viewers nothing they wouldn’t get from the syndicated versions of the episodes. But, at least they can watch the episodes unedited, in full, anytime they want. It is rare that the programming is so good to warrant a perfect rating for a DVD collection based on the original programming content alone, but Ally McBeal Season two works. It stands up, even years later and watching it on DVD reminded me why I watched the show and how much I missed it when it was good.
For other works featuring Greg Germann, please check out my reviews of:
For other television reviews, be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the shows I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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