Saturday, May 19, 2012

Opening A Series With Mixed Promise: Ally McBeal Arrives On DVD With "Complete First Season!"

The Good: Moments of humor, Level of dialogue, Moments of acting
The Bad: Some terrible performances/plots, Lack of DVD bonus features, Takes a while to get going.
The Basics: A decent program, Ally McBeal's first season arrives on DVD with no bonus features, making it a tough sell for the repetitive and melodramatic nature of the stories.

Many, many people have been waiting for David E. Kelley productions like Picket Fences, Boston Public, and The Practice to make their way to DVD. Indeed, one of the most anticipated releases of 2009 was Kelley's Ally McBeal which has finally hit DVD as both "The Complete Series" (reviewed here!) and individual seasons. Concurrent with the "Complete Series" release was Ally McBeal: The Complete First Season, a six-disc set featuring all 22 episodes of the first season of the show. For those who have not seen the series, Ally McBeal employs a rich collection of music, usually covered by singer Vonda Shepard and getting the legal clearances (affordably) for the DVD releases has been a real hassle.

Now that it has hit DVD, I find myself considering Ally McBeal: The Complete First Season with a sense of indifference I was not sure I had ever felt for the series. In fact, it wasn't until I went back to the reviews I wrote for my college newspaper when Ally McBeal premiered in 1997 that I recalled I had not always been a devoted fan of the series. Truth-be-told, Ally McBeal has a very rocky first season and as a result, it is very easy to dismiss it. David E. Kelley created the melodramatic legal soap opera, gave actress Calista Flockhart her shot and even that team could not guarantee a winner.

The thing is, Ally McBeal is a legal dramady (or dramedy, the correct spelling has not actually been canonized yet) and some of it is entirely hit-or-miss. The show deserves a lot of credit for assembling a weird, eclectic cast of characters and putting them in situations that are personally difficult and professionally awkward, but sometimes the intent does not mean success with the execution. As a result, many of the dramatic moments in Ally McBeal The Complete First Season feel like melodrama or are spoiled by moments of comedy. And some of the moments that could be most comedically valuable, viewers will find are actually traumatically sad on the field of human drama (in other words, they are funny until the moment one thinks about them, then they become horrified they laughed at them).

For those unfamiliar with it, the idea behind Ally McBeal is a rare legal comedy, much like David E. Kelley's Boston Legal (reviewed here!). Written with a strong female protagonist (the title character), Ally McBeal is the story of a lawyer who gets fired from one firm, hired to the craziest firm in Boston and struggles while there to keep her hands off the love of her life.

In the first season of Ally McBeal, Ally is fired from her law firm when she alleges sexual harassment against one of the partners there (he grabs her butt). On her way out, she runs into her Harvard Law classmate Richard Fish, who is an unscrupulous man who is only into law for the money. Fish offers Ally a position at his firm, Cage & Fish, where Ally runs into the love of her life, Billy, and his wife, Georgia. As Ally reels from the idea of working alongside her true love, John Cage returns from a business trip the subject of a lawsuit which Ally must represent him on.

As Ally struggles to keep her hands off Billy, she begins trying cases at Cage & Fish that make her known around the Boston legal community. She starts dating, even finding a doctor she likes quite a bit before becoming even more trouble for Billy and Georgia. While she tries to not be a homewrecker (in the process getting into kickboxing with Georgia), she takes on therapy from an unconventional therapist who challenges her to find a theme song for her life and struggles with hallucinations. Cage & Fish see a lot of money come into the firm from cases like two people who want to swap hearts but cannot legally do so, a case involving three people who want to be legally considered married and a sexual harassment case from one of their own!

The cases tend to be more social and civil in subject (The Practice was concerned with the criminal cases at the same time on competing ABC) and many of the cases either mirror relationship issues between Ally or other principle characters or set characters at one another. For example, Renee - Ally's roommate and best friend - goes up against John Cage a couple of time and Ally and Renee square off in "Happy Birthday, Baby." But cases like the one in "Forbidden Fruits," which mirror the Ally/Billy/Georgia love triangle, are the more common ones.

The primary characters in the first season of Ally McBeal - which is arguably character-driven - are:

Ally McBeal - A twenty-eight (she turns twenty-nine in one of the later episodes of the season) year-old lawyer, she is ethical and somewhat flighty, but essentially a good person. As a child, she and Billy smelled each other's butts (like dogs do) and fell in love with him. Hired at Cage & Fish, she puts up with absurdities from her co-workers and begins hallucinating (a dancing baby being one of her most common hallucinations) and she tries such things as telling a dirty joke on stage to upstage Renee. She lives with Renee and tries dating Dr. Butters, but discovers her heart is very much tied to Billy,

Billy - A competent lawyer who is married to Georgia, he is torn between his affection for Ally and his love for his wife. In fact, when he sees Ally kiss another man, he becomes jealous based more on his memories than his current desires. He is an articulate litigator who wants bigger cases than he often has a chance for at the firm,

Georgia - Billy's wife, she is catty and direct in not appreciating Ally's position at Cage & Fish. She asks Ally to leave and is stymied when Ally stays with the firm and often confesses problems to him. She wants to start a family with Billy and advance in Cage & Fish. She gets into a physical fight with Ally after both start kickboxing,

Renee - Ally's roommate, she worries Ally might be coming unhinged. Knowing Ally is hallucinating, she tries to help her friend. Attracted to Dr. Butters, she is sexually aggressive and even flirts with John Cage a time or two. She sings downstairs at the club sometimes while hanging out with her friends from Cage & Fish,

Elaine - The firm's secretary, she dresses provocatively and Ally feels somewhat threatened by her. She gets depressed around the holidays and when her outfits lead her to be viewed in a less-professional manner, she sues the firm for sexual harassment,

Richard Fish - One of the two senior partners at the firm, he is unscrupulous and out for money only. He has an on-again, off-again relationship with Judge Whipper Cone, whom he loves for her waddle (the fleshy part of the throat). He speaks quickly and tries to move things along with curt, unfeeling, apologies ("Bygones") and he tends to be quite base with trying to meet his needs,

And John Cage - The other senior partner, he enters the series in disgrace, stuttering through accusations of sexual misconduct. He is a basketcase who is also legally brilliant and actually wants to help people. He begins smile therapy (smiling even through things that frustrate him in order to try to feel better), stutters frequently and is drawn to Ally. When it becomes clear that Ally will not reciprocate his feelings, he becomes her good friend and confidant. As the season progresses, he becomes more confident and actually tries to talk with Ally about her feelings for Billy. He is the heart and soul of Cage & Fish.

Ally McBeal is problematic because in the first season, the initial character aspects are more often repeated than developed beyond. As a result, Ally and Billy have a terribly melodramatic relationship and Georgia's part in the weird triangle is more often repetitive and simple than an actual challenge to either of them. As well, both Ally and Billy are played by performers (Calista Flockhart and Gil Bellows, respectively) who have often lacking sexual chemistry on screen. While the directors try hard, Bellows is frequently stiff (not in the idea way for a romantic story, either) and Flockhart seems to have a particularly difficult time of establishing the character. While other dramadies mix the comedy and drama well, Ally McBeal mixes it poorly. Flockhart is partially to blame for this in that her idea of acting dramatically at many points in this first season consists of her staring blankly and wide-eyed forward like a deer in the headlights (still not sure what the emotion is supposed to be most of the time . . .).

On the flip side, Peter MacNichol is absolutely brilliant as John Cage. MacNichol is completely convincing in his stuttering and frustrated body language. He has an amazing sense of comic timing (his part in "Boy To The World," where Fish is arguing to have a relative who hated shorter people eulogized at the family church where he despised the short people, is hilarious) and he times every joke perfectly. As well, he is convincingly brilliant and his closings are frequently stirring and absolutely worth watching multiple times.

On DVD, Ally McBeal The Complete First Season comes with no bonus features. There is nothing extra for the fans in this set and it is a tough sell on this set as opposed to watching it in syndication.

The first season of Ally McBeal belabors the Billy/Ally relationship and while the cases are funny, the show is a more mediocre than extraordinary first season. The show has some (rightful) distinction in this first season for the frankness of the sexual dialogue and it is a rare comedy that used CG special effects. But in the end, it is hardly enough to recommend it. This is thoroughly average and all of the essential points are repeated in subsequent (better) seasons.

For other courtrooms on television, check out my reviews of:
“Measure Of A Man”


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the television programs and episodes I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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