John Denvir, who teaches constitutional law at USF Law School, is editor of Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.
"Ally" puts in question not so much the morality of law as it is practiced in the United States, but rather its sanity. The show challenges us to ask whether sane people would choose to live this way.
John is a geek to the last degree, yet somehow has a way with juries. His success comes from his ability to break through arguments about rules to arguments about love, the search for it, and the pain of losing it.
Legal Tender: Reconsidering Ally McBeal
By John Denvir
The litmus test of good fiction is whether or not you continue to think of the characters after youve laid down the book, left the theater, or turned off the tube. Judged by these standards, Ally McBeal, as created by David E. Kelley and played by Calista Flockhart, rates as one of the most interesting cultural phenomena of the 90's. Already in this "online journal," we have published two interesting comments on Ali, one sympathetic and one less so.
I confess that I dismissed Ally when she first appeared as an undernourished Mary Tyler Moore. But I now see that "Ally McBeal " follows "Roseanne" in the tradition of subversive comedy. "Ally" puts in question not so much the morality of law as it is practiced in the United States, but rather its sanity. The show challenges us to ask whether sane people would choose to live this way.
Thats why her firms managing partner, Richard Fish (Greg Germann), is so happy; hes crazy. Kelley has made Fish the incarnation of everything people hate about lawyers. Hes greedy, aggressive, insensitive, crude, and gleeful. Completely without social conscience, he sees the highest objective in law to be the accumulation of large amounts of money. He confessed once to Ally that he becomes sexually aroused while studying his stock portfolio. I think Kelley is suggesting that Fish is a successful lawyer, not despite his limitations, moral and imaginative, but because of them.
Ally, on the other hand, only looks insane because shes forced to act out her fate in an absurd environment. Ally is clearly not comfortable practicing law. She doesnt like the structure of legal discourse which only leaves room for one "winner," and she also doesnt understand the obsessive interest in money. Probably she chose to attend law school because of the moral probity of TV lawyers like Perry Mason and Lawrence Preston ("The Defenders")and the wardrobes on "LA law."
Ally can usefully be compared to and contrasted with her Kelley doppelganger, Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) of "The Practice." We might say that Ally and Lindsay represent two alternative reactions to the male-dominated, "gladiator" model of lawyer currently in vogue in America. Lindsays might be called the "Margaret Thatcher" alternative. Lindsay started in the "The Practice" as the girl next door pretty book worm who had a crush on her boss, the tough street smart litigator, Bobby Donal. But, like Ally, the Lindsay character has evolved. Shes discovered shes as good a lawyer as Bobby, and if anything more ruthless. Now shes Bobbys lover, but I predict she will slowly decide that he lacks the ambition she admires. Week by week her influence in the firm, and the hostility it breeds, increases, but she doesnt care. Lindsay likes being on top.
Ally, on the other hand, is clearly not "partner track" material. Its hard to imagine her weekly "billable" hours ranging much above the teens. Allys much too busy figuring out life to become a "successful" lawyer. Yet, I would argue shes a much more "revolutionary" figure than Lindsay. Lindsay is following in the same old professional rut. If the series lasts long enough, we can expect her to experience a mid-life crisis and to start "hitting" on the law clerks. Ally represents a new breed of lawyer. I think a key sequence came when she represented a woman charged with statutory rape for sleeping with an underage male. As the defendant explained that she had discovered that boys as they grew to become men lost that tender quality which made them attractive, an explosion goes off in Allys head. All these successful male lawyers have lost the sweetness which makes life worthwhile, and "successful" women lawyers like Lindsay are headed in the same direction. She decides to become a new type of lawyer one who cares about emotion more than logic, people more than rules.
Kelley makes sure that this perspective is not just a "gender thing by providing Ally with a alter ego in the character of John "the biscuit" Cage (Peter MacNichol). John is a geek to the last degree, yet somehow has a way with juries. His success comes from his ability to break through arguments about rules to arguments about love, the search for it, and the pain of losing it. Ally and John have put the whole edifice of "rational" argument in question.. Love takes precedence over narrow legal conceptions of Justice. Their favorite legal philosophers appear to be Al Greene and Barry White. And it works, at least on television..