Ally McBeal: Smash or pass? Love it or leave it?

Ally McBeal was a serial TV show on Fox from 1998 to 2002. Do you love it or leave it? Is it a smash or pass?

Each season was 20+, one-hour stories, with a regular cast of characters, mostly. Some characters would ‘disappear’ over the course of years, and be replaced by new ones. In addition, there were many guest appearances by known stars.

It’s contemporary of the times and takes place in Boston. Ally McBeal is an attractive, neurotic, narcissistic young lawyer who works for the law firm of Cage & Fish. The firm specializes in discrimination, divorce, defamation, sexual harassment, and emotional distress lawsuits. Each episode usually involves two cases as well as interpersonal relations between the characters.

I’ll categorize the show as a RomComDram, historical fantasy. At present I’m binge watching it, and am approaching the final season. (9/11 hasn’t yet happened.) Truth be told, I think a review could be done for each show. However, I’m not going to do that – this is an overview. So without further delay, let’s get into it.

Money, Sex, and Power

is the subplot of the show.

Truth be told ...
Typical expository case. S1E3


Along with love, loneliness, and  friendship. The show explores these touchy subjects over and over again. Moreover, as in the real world, they are never fully resolved.

In The Real World is just one of the many show’s songs sung in support of the themes. Music is a big part of the production. Much of the “action” takes place in the downstair bar of the law firm’s office building. There is a house band that features Vonda Shepard, an in-real-life performer.

In addition, other actual music celebrities make appearances. Such as: Barry White, Randy Newman, Al Green, Barry Manilow, Sting, and Tina Turner, to name a few. The music is mostly soul and disco. There’s a lot of dancing which is couched as sexual foreplay.

There’s also a dancing baby! Who is not real but a hallucination of Ally’s neurotic mind. No worries, however. Ms McBeal goes to therapy.


John Cage, senior partner of the firm and kindred oddball, gives Ally his therapist's name. She goes in hope of ridding herself of her hallucinations.
Ally questions her therapist

Doesn’t go as planned. The therapist, Tracy, is unconventional.

Ally’s on the the therapy game.

During their first session Ally protests when the provider tells her to pick a theme song. “Hey”, she says, “this isn’t normal therapy.” Tracy responds, “Well, you’re not a normal patient.” Indignant and angry, Ally comes back with, “You, you, therapists aren’t suppose to use words like normal!”


Subsequently, Ally goes through several stylistically different therapists. Some more effective than others. In addition, other members and couples take their turn on the couch, with varying degrees of success.


are many and diverse.

Nelle is resented by other female associates because of her beauty and indifference.
Associate Nelle Porter

I don’t really identify with any of the characters. However, I do have favorites. Nelle Porter for one. Senior partner Richard Fish for another.

Founder of the firm isn't a typical lawyer - he's forthright
Senior partner Richard Fish

Both of these characters are really characters – forthright and unapologetic. Nelle uses her beauty to manipulate and Richard his power as senior partner. Fish often blurts out “fishisms”, and then dismisses the offense with “bygones”.

Ally McBeal

is played by Calista Flockhart. [Flockhart is now married (2004) to Harrison Ford. She has subsequently disclosed the obvious – that she was anorexic when filming the show.] Her character is adorable, or infuriating depending on your own sensitivities.

McBeal is in search of true love, a lifetime partner and family. She gets involved with a lot of men, and boys.

One of my favorite skits - when ally goes to Fenway Park with a date and plays ball
Ally playing a Red Sox pitcher

Love and Loneliness

keep the stories moving. All the characters, and indeed the law suits, center around those two themes. The characters, in turn, vacillate between the two emotional states. The age old question, “Are ‘Soul Mates’ a real thing?” is never answered. Love triangles abound. Jealousy, envy, resentment, and revenge are everywhere. But so is tenderness, empathy, love and understanding.

Almost every episode brings water to my eyes. But also outbursts of laughter (rare for me). It’s a crazy show. In addition to the bar, the courtroom, and the streets of Boston – a lot of action takes place in a uni-sex bathroom. The bathroom was Fish’s idea to integrate the staff and make for a fun environment. Well … crazy stuff happens.

In conclusion

I’ll say this. The show hits on so many sensitive subjects which are ongoing today – twenty years later. Has progress been made? I’d say no. In fact, things have gotten much worse. It’s apparent that racism was not an issue then. Now, it’s everywhere! All of these sensitive issues were argued, both sides, in the courtroom. Moreover, the cases were decided either by the judge or a jury.

As a viewer you get both sides of the issue, argued in a court of law. Albeit, sometimes with crazy antics. However, the arguments are true and often I couldn’t tell which side would win. That’s good television!

Have you seen the show? Do you have favorite characters, or episodes? What about the music?

Do you believe in ‘Soul Mates’? Have things, these social issues, gotten worse?







8 thoughts on “Ally McBeal: Smash or pass? Love it or leave it?

  1. Sorry, Amigo, but I’d have to go with “loathe” the show. I’m in the final season with 13 episodes remaining, and I’m so disgusted by it I’m not sure I can finish it. To me, the main character is narcissistic (in the extreme), dishonest, empty, angry, hostile, and beyond neurotic — to the point she should be on meds, if not locked up. She hallucinates uncontrollably. That’s not cute, it’s insane. Yeah, she’s in therapy, but the show makes a mockery of it (remember pill-peddling Betty White). The show wants its dramatic moments, but the characters are such caricatures most of the intended drama falls flat with me. It’s a slapstick comedy where most of what goes on wouldn’t be out of place in a high school sex farce.
    There are worse TV shows, of course, but I’d have to rank this one as the worst I’ve made myself suffer through. (The writing in the final season is so bad I really don’t think I can get through the last 13 episodes.)

  2. The show makes mockery of most all institutions, which is one reason I like it. The justice system, churches, therapy, ballplayers, advertising, publishing, higher education, politics, business and so on. Which to me raises the question, why weren’t these issues not dealt with?
    I see, as perhaps you do, that our society is disintegrating (IRL). Regarding therapy (which I’m somewhat of an expert of) Yep. It’s definitely a hit or miss thing, and now has gotten SO huge. Renne, another one of my favorite characters (I just found out), was written out of S5 because she became erratic and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder (IRL). But why wasn’t anorexia dealt with in the show? And Flockhart not treated? Answer – ratings/money. I thought the session with Betty White was telling, and true. That was all the rage then – Prozac was thought of as a miracle drug and much over prescribed.
    Yes, the characters were exaggerations, but that made it fun for me.
    That was the fantasy part. Hiding the truth in jokes is what comedy does, I think. Otherwise it’s “off with their heads.” Or no one will watch. The truth is often too painful, which is the essence of therapy – getting at that truth in a safe (confidential) space. Most patients lie to their therapists, and every one else. Which the show explores.
    Anyway, what about “Soul Mates”? Are you a believer? Ghosts?

    1. Sorry, didn’t realize you’d replied. (I only get a notification on replies. New comments don’t trigger one.)

      I think slapstick and mockery are different from satire and parody. The former uses easy targets for easy laughs, whereas the latter demonstrates insight and perspective. The thing about slapstick and caricature is that, when the show reaches for a dramatic moment, it can fall flat because the situations and characters are such cartoons.

      Consider how the show portrays therapy entirely for laughs (as with Tracy Ullman and Betty White) — there’s no indication it sees any value in it. It’s egregious considering its main character is desperately in need of it — which they never acknowledge. The Betty White character is a good example of an easy target. Exactly as you say, the pill-pushing of the medical and psychiatric fields was well-known and even something of a standard gag in comedy.

      Flockhart was in denial about her eating disorder when the show was made — claiming she had “small bones”. In show business, so long as someone can perform, that’s generally all that matters. The Pink Floyd song “Comfortably Numb” touches on this. And on the pill-pushing of the medical profession (the song is from 1979!). It’s only when an actor can’t perform, as with Downey, Jr. or Lisa Nicole Carson, that show runners take notice. (“The show must go on.” & “All that matters is the art.” That has always been the case; it’s not new.)

      Something interesting about the Downey Jr. character. If you recall, Ally initially mistakes him for a therapist because he took over Tracy’s old office. And, because he was intelligent and rational, during that gag, I thought, “Finally, they’re presenting a decent therapist!” But, of course, they weren’t. He was a lawyer.

      By dishonest, I didn’t mean with her therapists (and, in fact, she was pretty honest with them). I meant with herself and everyone else. Beyond the norm to the point of being in denial.

      No and no. “Soul mates” is a fiction. So are ghosts. Part of what makes Ally so unattractive is the way she defines herself almost entirely in terms of a hoped for “true love”. But she has no interests in anything else (no hobbies, no passions other than “The One”) and there’s a well-known notion that no one will love you until you learn to love yourself.

      One scene really stuck out with me. Their morning meeting, and Ally suddenly hallucinates that Fish (who I though was a lot of fun but utterly preposterous) is Billy. She stands up and starts touching his face — much to Fish’s surprise. As with all her hallucinations, no part of her intellect kicks in and suggests the impossibility of her perceptions. She continues, even after five years, to think they’re real. It’s not cute, it’s tragic.

  3. Also, Robert Downey became unreliable because of drug addiction so they had to write him out. It’s hardly a surprise to keep writing good stories when all the actors have mental health issues.
    Whadda ya gonna do?

    1. It’s not the actors, it’s the writers. Actors are written out for all sorts of reasons. But the writing tone (frat-boy infantilism) was apparent from day one. Just imagine the show as a slapstick high school sex farce with the kids pretending to be lawyers. Most of the scripts would fit right in.

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