"Ally McBeal " has
lots of critics these days. Lets evaluate the charges.
Some say the show is unrealistic. Its true
that it is not a mirror image of any existing law firm, but art
always gives a heightened image of everyday reality; otherwise we wouldnt watch.
Just as there is no quartet of friends in Manhattan like Jerry, Elaine, George, and
Kramer, there is not "real" counterpart to the firm of Cage and Fish, but it is
because of its excesses that "Ally" is able to provide us us with a biting
satire of modern corporate culture, a social system which includes but goes well beyond
the practice of law. It points out that lots of talented people work extremely hard for no
goals more lofty than professional prestige and financial success. For them the job too
often substitutes for a satisfying personal life both in terms of meaningful relationships
and just plain fun. "Ally" hints at an alternative "reality" where
people end every work day with drinks and dancing with friends. And Ally reminds us of the
importance of "silly." Is it appropriate for a young lawyer to sing back-up to
Tina Turner? Sure-- if shes got the moves. So I would vote "thumbs down"
on the "realist" critique.
But Ally is so neurotic.
Whats so unrealistic about that? One of the most deep seated neuroses in modern
corporate culture is the repression of anxiety and depression. People work so hard to be
"positive" and "upbeat." Yet often its not very convincing. I
think they would benefit from more a little more anxiety, worrying whether the time
commitments necessary to professional success rob them of the opportunity for a satisfying
emotional life. Ally always puts the personal first. Isnt this a "healthy"
But then critics say there
isnt any law in "Ally." Actually almost every episode involves a lawsuit
of some sort. And the legal dispute always has political content, raising the issue of the
connection between law and justice. Its true that "Ally" creator David
Kelley has not given Ally McBeal herself much of a role in these issues. Kelley usually
assigns the "justice brief" to Allys friend and alter ego, John Cage. Who
is Cage? Well, first of all, hes even more neurotic than Ally. I guess mere
mention of his tree frog fetish is sufficient documentation of this fact. Secondly,
hes a very talented lawyer. Lastly, his clients usually tend to be
"outsiders" like himself who are trying find a way to fit into an intolerant
corporate culture. Cages courtroom strategy is always the same. Ignore the law and
speak to the heart.
In a recent episode, his
clients were an African-American transvestite and a man who suffered from Turetts
syndrome which caused him to whistle and clap at inappropriate times. These two had been
fired by a design firm, not because their design work was not up to par, but because their
appearance presented the wrong image for the business. This is the quintessential Ally
McBeal case: a lawsuit for wrongful termination where the plaintiff is someone who is
being fired because of some "weirdness" not directly related to his or her
ability to do the job.
Cage is a brilliant
courtroom lawyer whose arguments always sound in equity rather than law. He gives the jury
a beautiful little homily about how it feels to be a "weirdo" persecuted by your
high school peers, but that the reward is that as an adult your eccentricities will be
accepted if you are productive. Cage is clearly speaking about himself as much as his
clients. He is telling us that weirdness is wonderful, a social asset to be protected.
Its essential to a democracy that citizens be allowed to define themselves rather
than be forced to accept the majority cultures definition. Isnt this a message
which is important that we all hear? In a neat counterpoint, Kelley also shows how
difficult a virtue tolerance is to practice as opposed to preach. Ally has to confess that
she turned down three otherwise attractive suitors because they didnt fit her
cultural prejudices; one because he was "homeless, another because she he had a
horse-like laugh, and a third because he was bi-sexual.
So I think that most of the
criticisms of "Ally" are simply wrong, but there is another criticism which I
think is right on point. Ally herself is never shown as a competent professional.
Its always Cage making the eloquent jury summation while Ally makes small talk back
at the office. Even worse, shes often engaging in inappropriate behavior in court.
In one recent episode, while listening to gripping testimony of a murder, she continually
emitted oohs and aahs as if she were listening to a ghost story around a camp fire instead
of assisting at a trial. It would be one thing if Ally were shown to be an great lawyer
who has a zany side, but zany seems Allys only side. Shes portrayed as a
yuppie Lucy Ricardo. Since young female lawyers are always battling to be taken seriously
as professionals, I wonder why Kelley indulges this stereotype.
Here the contrast with
Lindsey Dole on Kelleys "The Practice" seems especially striking.
Lindseys neurotic too, but shes also helluva lawyer. In a recent episode, she
faced down a prejudiced judge by staging a walkout of the entire defense team. The judge
threatened contempt, but she quickly replied shed rather go to jail for contempt
than accept second class treatment. He caved in. Good, tough lawyering is not
gender-specific. Of course, Lindsay has her neuroses too. She appears to have adopted the
"warrior" model of lawyering to an extreme. Its hard to imagine her
discussing much other than trial tactics with her boyfriend Bobby Donal.
Maybe Kelley believes that
the quirkiness of Ally and the competence of Lindsay cant be combined. If so, he
might rewatch "Adams Rib", paying especial attention to the Katherine
Hepburn character. There we see a woman lawyer who is smart, tough, passionate, and
sexy attributes all lawyers should aim for.