Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Rise And Fall Of Dramady: Why Ally McBeal Flops As "The Complete Series."

The Good: The early seasons
The Bad: The later seasons
The Basics: After a rocky start, Ally McBeal takes a turn for the truly great, but midway through the series, this becomes a huge letdown before ending in utter disappointment.

It might seem an odd thing that I, who has long advocated for television shows that have been off the air for some time release their series' on DVD as complete series packs before releasing individual seasons would not recommend Ally McBeal: The Complete Series, when this is exactly what David E. Kelley has done with his much-beloved series. It might also seem strange that as someone who watched all five seasons of Ally McBeal when it was on that I would not recommend the boxed set. But truth be told, Ally McBeal, which many see as David E. Kelley's great success is actually one of the true tragedies of actors abandoning their posts and gutting a series.

As a result, Ally McBeal is an incredibly erratic series and the milestone for me in the release of "Ally McBeal: The Complete Series" hitting DVD is that back when I was in college, I reviewed Ally McBeal for the college paper during pilot season. I panned the first episode and did not give it long. A few years later, I was loyally watching and I was eating crow for my early words. But those who would be quick to defend Ally McBeal need to look at the entire series and this boxed set, unfortunately, illustrates the entire arc of the legal dramedy.

What begins as a funny and quirky legal drama that did something no other television show was doing at the time - namely using state-of-the-art special effects on a drama/comedy - evolves into a rich character piece that is consistently hilarious with the interpersonal relationships and astonishingly clever with the legal conundrums the show illustrated. But in the middle season, one of the actors abruptly left the show and the fundamental dynamic of the series was upset. The show never recovered from that and it wasn't for a lack of trying. After recovering with an inspired cast addition - Robert Downey Jr., who won awards for his work on the series - personal problems off-camera forced Downey Jr. to leave. After the already tumultuous season, the show tried to reinvent itself and the final season became one of the worst seasons of any television show to ever grace television.

But for those who love strong female characters and television shows that can both make one laugh and bring tears to the eyes, Ally McBeal: The Complete Series seems like it might be a good investment. But, truth be told, the series is so erratic that it is much easier to wait around for the few extraordinary seasons of the show to make their way to DVD. For fans of the series; you've waited this long, hold on longer. Ally McBeal will be released as individual seasons; concurrent with the release of this big boxed set was "Season One." But because there is so much repetition in the series of the key character elements, it is very easy to start with the best seasons and just keep one's collection with the prime stock (Seasons Two and Three).

Ally McBeal opens with the title character, fresh out of law school, trying to find a job at any Boston firm that would have her. She randomly runs into her unscrupulous classmate, Richard Fish, on the street and he agrees to hire Ally to his firm. What Fish doesn't know to tell her is that one of the other lawyers at the firm is Billy, the first man Ally ever loved, and his wife, Georgia. As Ally, Georgia and Billy try to make their professional and personal lives work - without Billy running off to be with Ally - Ally and the firm of Cage and Fish fight legal battles that try to make the world a better place.

So, as Ally goes through disastrous dates (and returns home at night to cry on her roommate Renee's shoulders), she spends her day trying cases like lobbying for the rights of two prisoners to get married, over the objections of the warden. The firm also tackles cases like defending a young man who assaulted someone after he was verbally provoked and an age discrimination case that pits Ally against her former law firm. The cases generally have social relevancy as well as parallels to the character's lives at the time.

As the series progresses, John Cage - the moral center of Cage & Fish - comes to rely on Ally more and he hires other lawyers for the firm. As a result of hiring people like Nelle Porter and the often-indifferent Ling, Cage & Fish becomes a hotbed of hormones. As relationships come and go, Ally and John work to win cases to better Boston and the world while balancing Fish's greed, Ling's selfishness, and Nelle's coldness.

Ally McBeal deals with cases involving society and law in Bill Clinton's America. The firm takes on topics like gay marriage and "don't ask, don't tell," as well as more frequent cases involving relationships gone sour. The firm of Cage & Fish usually has a socially-relevant case and a case that mirrors the personal problems of members of the firm. So, for example, when John and Nelle defend a boy who kisses beautiful girls at school, it helps reveal how insecure Cage is about his relationship with Nelle and how she is his exact ideal.

What separated Ally McBeal from other shows at the time - and even since - was a level of frank sexual dialogue that explored love and relationships from a female perspective. This is chick flick television and without the directness and the mix of humor and drama, it is unlikely that shows like Sex & The City would have managed to be successful and enduring. Portraying a level of dialogue and a female perspective on relationships and sex that had not been presented on television, Ally McBeal deserves its reputation as entertaining and in some ways groundbreaking.

Mixed in with serious stories that tested the law and emotional moments which explored human relationships, were iconic moments of humor that took the form of hallucinations. Ally frequently hallucinated, most commonly a dancing baby which represented her own desire to have a child. At times of stress or excitement, Ally would have Looney Tunes-like hallucinations where she would feel her heart beating or her eyes would pop out of her head. These were sometimes distracting and as Ally got deeper into therapy, they were eventually phased out of the show.

What Ally McBeal has that all great shows have are great characters. The characters are vivid, memorable and they each have distinct character conflicts and quirks. The principle characters in the series are:

Ally McBeal - A young lawyer who never got over her first love, Billy, she comes to work at Cage & Fish alongside him. Despite his lingering love for her, Ally tries to date others and even has a bear-miss relationship with John Cage. She is a competent lawyer who closes from her heart and who struggles to better herself. She is the soul of Cage & Fish,

Georgia - Ally's romantic rival, she is married to Billy and becomes immediately territorial of him. When she cannot stand Ally and Billy making eyes at one another, she leaves the firm, though her departures are seldom permanent,

Billy - A fairly mature lawyer who is married and devoted to Georgia, he soon becomes conflicted over lingering feelings for Ally. He is a good lawyer, but his heart is clearly divided,

John Cage - One of the firm's senior partners, he is nicknamed "the biscuit" (derogatorily), he is a wealth of personality quirks. While Ally finds her own theme song, John has a remote control for the toilet so he is insured a clean bowl, occasionally stutters and is a brilliant legal mind. He develops a romance with Nelle,

Richard Fish - The other senior partner at Cage & Fish, he is motivated almost entirely by greed and sex. He is an awkward friend to John and he develops a relationship with Ling after having a longtime fling with a judge with a waddle that he cannot resist,

Elaine Vassal - The slutty personal assistant to the firm, she likes to sing, gets depressed around the holidays and is an exhibitionist when she is depressed. She tries inventing various products throughout the series, with limited results,

Renee - Ally's roommate sidekick. She is Ally's sounding board and (seriously) disappears without mention after the essential conflict with Ally is resolved,

Vonda - The singer at the lounge below the firm, she does a musical number at the end of almost every episode. She does not so much have a character as she appears for musical accompaniment,

Nelle Porter - Icy, she is brought on by John Cage, who has a crush on her. She is efficient, professional and restrained compared to others at the firm,

And Ling - Nelle's best friend, she uses sex to get what she wants out of Richard. She has ambitions of her own and she acts frequently as an antagonist to Ally.

Ally McBeal has other characters, in the later seasons, but to go into them would ruin some of the plot surprises of the show. By the end of the series, very few of the original characters are part of the show and those who are tend to be in radically different capacities. This is the show that made Calista Flockhart, who played Ally, a household name. Flockhart does a decent job of emoting and she becomes a reasonable champion for professional women everywhere. She has a somewhat bland sense of comic timing, but she is used well. Ally McBeal has a wonderful cast that plays off one another perfectly. The cast, at its peak, included Flockhart, Greg Germann, Lucy Liu, Portia di Rossi, and Jane Krakowski.

But the actor who steals the show most consistently is Peter MacNicol as John Cage. MacNicol is dramatically convincing when he stutters and comedically brilliant when he delivers humorous reactions or absurdist statements. MacNicol is clever, funny and he is able to emote so well that when his character is in pain, it is impossible not to empathize with him.

But the greatness of the series, even MacNicol's, is mortgaged by the end. The boxed set clearly reveals how changes brought about by the actors and their desires to have careers which diverged from the show, forced the series to make abrupt turns, from which the series never recovered.

On DVD as a 32-disc set, this dramedy includes all of the original music (which was a factor holding up its release all of these years). On the bonus disc there is the crossover episode between Ally McBeal and "The Practice" (the other show's half of it). As well there is a new featurette on the entire series with interviews from some surprising members of the cast and crew. There is also a disc with the best soundtrack moments which is a take-it-or-leave-it disc. There are, alas, no commentary tracks, so fans might be a bit disappointed by that. Fortunately, this does not include the digest show "Ally!"

As odd as it is for me to write, hold out for the individual seasons; this is a series that became unfortunately worse with age and while there are truly amazing seasons of the show, "Ally McBeal: The Complete Series" is not homogeneously great. Fans will want to get the best seasons and let the rest fall by the wayside.

For a better idea of the content of this boxed set, please visit my reviews of:
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
Season 5

For other shows that originally aired on FOX, please check out my reviews of:
Family Guy Presents: It’s A Trap!
Glee - Season Two
Fringe - Season Three
Arrested Development
The Lone Gunmen
The X-Files
Ned And Stacey - Season 1
The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr.


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing by clicking here!

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