on 14 August 2015
I've just watched all five seasons of Ally McBeal again and the gloss it had when it was first aired does seem to have worn off. Basically the story of a kooky, single female professional in short skirts, whose life revolves around her ex, her inner world, and her career as a lawyer, does't really progress very far in it's 5 seasons. It also goes downhill quite quickly from the later half of Season 2 onwards, but more on that later. I remember enjoying it at the time, and watching each episode feeling thoroughly entertained. I am wondering why I've changed my opinion slightly now, but when seen as a whole, the shortfalls do seem more evident. This is a review of the entire series, so there will be SPOILERS.
Season 1 introduces us to Ally and her quirky outlook on life. Basically all of the first season is one long tale of pining for lost love as Ally works alongside childhood sweetheart /soul- mate, Billy, who is now married to another woman. Of course, they all work at the same firm, a company called Cage & Fish. The episodes follow an extremely repetitive template: Ally and her firm take on a case, which always hold up a mirror to the emotions and events going on in Ally's personal life in that episode. As well as defending cases in court, Ally and her colleagues spend each evening after work in a bar, mulling over events of the day, while "bar singer" Vonda Sheperd sings songs that - funnily enough - also underscore the emotions and events of the episode. The episode will normally end with Ally (or occasionally another main character) speaking from the heart during the trial, using their parallel pain and insight to win over the jury, and thus winning the case. In almost all 23 episodes of Season 1, Cage & Fish win almost every single case they try - what a record. I think I only counted one episode in which they lost.
Throughout the season, the trademark of the show is to use visual special effects to "actualise" Ally's emotions, such as a dump truck tossing her into a garbage crate to symbolise "being dumped", and so on. Early on in the season, Ally hallucinates a "dancing baby" (a real-life internet phenomenon at the time, which the show's creators pounced on and shoe-horned into the show), which is not effective because it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Actually, to my relief, the "special effects" seemed a lot less frequent than I remembered them, and they don't take away from the actual emotions of the show, which to be fair are it's strength. The acting is pretty good all round, lead by Calista Flockhart, who, when not falling over (which the script seems to have her do A LOT), does put in a good performance, and she embodies the title character perfectly. Most of the supporting cast are pretty good too.
Season 2 kicks off in the exact same style, demonstrating that the show really seems to have no direction to move in. Two new characters are introduced, Nell and Ling, which normally speaks of desperation in a show, but luckily both Nell and Ling are very entertaining and played to perfection by Portia De Rossi and Lucy Liu. Nell is by far the more interesting of the two, and I would love to have seen more time spent on her character. As Season 2 progresses, Ally's firm once again win almost EVERY case they are assigned to, and laughably, when one episode appears to challenge this status quo by putting the firm in charge of both sides of a case at the same time (so you would assume somebody at Cage & Fish would have to lose), the end result of the episode engineers a cop-out to ensure that neither side loses. Would it have killed the scriptwriters to allow somebody in the firm to lose cases more frequently that once per season? Clearly the show was never intended to explore the dramatic potential of the firm having a bad patch. On this same topic, spare a thought for Ally's room mate Renee, who is a District Attorney and frequently stands as opposing counsel against Cage & Fish, which means that she ALWAYS loses, so she must be really terrible at her job, and should really consider doing something else!
The worst aspect of Season 2 is that it suddenly switches things around with a mindset change from Billy, who spent all of Season 1 gently rebuffing Ally. But then, just as Ally starts to enjoy happiness with a new romance (finally!), Billy suddenly decides he still loves her and confesses this to her, causing her to falter on her fledgling romance - and lose it. Pah! Ally often bemoans that she can't find love, but it's not her fault when the show's creators come up with curveballs like this that don't make any sense. The dialogue from Billy during these few episodes is terrible, and gives no convincing explanation for the sudden about face.
On to Season 3, and this is where I started to lose my faith in the show on my first viewing. The character of Billy now becomes easily the worst aspect of the show, with his metamorphosis into an idiot. I never really warmed to the character of Billy, and sadly by season 3 she now has no depth whatsoever, which turns this whole plot strand into a cartoon. Luckily there are episodes that still have warmth, where the other cast members get a chance to show some depth. Episodes like the one where Elaine finds an abandoned baby, or where Ling makes friends with people in a care home, are good showcases for some nice stories and acting. Ally carries on dating guys, but it's quite clear that she will never find success with anybody, as evidenced by her dumping a man because he has a silly laugh, or dumping another because he has a bisexual past. Seeing her be this picky makes you lose a lot of sympathy with Ally's so-called loneliness.
At the 2/3rds mark of Season 3, there does seem to be something going wrong with the show. The whole thing suddenly falls apart as several story lines go haywire together. Billy is abruptly written out of the show, Nelle turns evil and dumps John Cage, John is stuck in a lift for an episode (clearly, filmed using a double as they never show his face), Ally's roommate Renee mysteriously disappears for a whole run of episodes, Georgia is totally sidelined at a pivotal moment for her character (grief at Billy's departure), leaving Ally a rather selfish centre stage as the only one depicted as being truly upset. Calista Flockhart does a good job with the material as ever, but the show works as an ensemble and the supporting cast seem to be getting less screen time to present their characters with any substance. Season 3 limps to a halt with a dire 'musical finale"
So here we are at Season 4 and I was relieved to see that the show seem to gather itself again. Characters feel more realistic, although by now Georgia has been silently written out of the show, while Nelle and new guy Mark pretty much has nothing to do. And Renee seems to spend each episode singing at "the bar". But the introduction of Robert Downey Junior as a new love interest is pretty good, and it's a shame that this was marred by the later scandal involving the actor, as he brings a lot to the show. Same for Anne Heche as a new love interest for John Cage, another quirky character (of course), but thanks to Heche's acting ability I think it comes across nicely. Season 4 concentrates on Ally's insecurity as part of a couple instead of her insecurity at being single, which is at least a change from three whole seasons where she was incapable of holding onto a man at all. Due to Robert Downey Junior's problems, there are a lot of episodes where he is absent, and it's quite obvious. But all in all, Season 4 is an improvement on the shallow and erratic Season 3.
And now finally Season 5, where the whole thing really unravels and slides down the hillside to the bottom. It's easy to see why Season 5 is the last one. Characters are dropping like flies, some are just not carried forward from Season 4 (Renee, Mark), others gradually appear less and less and then disappear (John Cage), and others are turned into little more than extras without story lines of their own (Nelle, Elaine). The worst aspect of the season is to introduce new characters at an alarming rate - including a new lawyer (Jenny) who is identical to Ally, which seems to serve no dramatic purpose. Ling returns briefly in a new ludicrous side story, and of course (for people that remember it), Ally acquires a 10 year old daughter. The best thing about Season 5 is the introduction of Dame Edna Everage as a side-character. Obviously this feels just as desperate as all the other wacky developments, but Dame Edna is just so darned funny that it's a pleasure to watch the episodes she is in. But other than that the plots go all over the place. Ally pretty much stops taking on any legal cases altogether and all we see is her being a mother. The abrupt tying up of events in the final episode is ridiculously condensed. It's like they only knew this was to be the final episode the day before it was written, everything seems so hasty.
So in conclusion, it's a case of diminishing returns for the series as a whole. The positives that hold the entire thing together and made me want to return to watching are is the main cast, who are all pretty good. There are some touching moments in several episodes. Seasons 1, 2 and 4 are the best. The decline towards the end is unfortunate. But Calista Flockhart and the rest of the main cast can certainly act, but Flockhart is continually forced to endure pratfalls, gasps or surprise, bumping into things and endless hair twiddling, which eventually wear out their welcome. The saddest thing is to wonder if the series might have recovered if Robert Downey Jnr hadn't had to leave, as he was really making the series pick up again, but by Season 5, it seemed like other cast members too were either opting out or being fired. Apparently appearances from both John Cage and Ling Woo were wound down towards the end of the show because the actors playing them asked for it, and Lisa Nicole Carson was also fired for her erratic behaviour on set. With issues like this to contend with, it's no wonder the series was incapable having a longer run.