I recently wrote a post about “90’s Things I’m Still Grateful For” for Wit & Delight and found myself getting quite nostalgic for Ally McBeal. I thought, “Damnit, I should go watch that whole show again in its entirety on Hulu, even though there are other, more relevant shows I should be watching right now.”
And so I did.
Ally McBeal had quite a profound effect on me growing up. Calista Flockhart’s “high-powered female lawyer” archetype was wholly new to me after my media diet of Disney movies and Saved By the Bell. This was the 90’s, after all, and people weren’t as *woke* as they are now. There was no Twitter OR Gawker (RIP). But the 90’s were a super-progressive time, producing media arguably more diverse than today’s. I think this quote from The Carmichael Show sums up the decade very well: “Did women even have self-esteem before Destiny’s Child?” Lol. But did we? I was like 10, and my self-esteem was terrible!
Speaking of, I was only 10 when I started watching Ally McBeal. My parents were very chill I guess, because the show is very sexual.
Case in point: The penultimate episode contains a scene wherein Ally does “earmuffs” over her daughter’s ears and asks Christina Ricci’s character for a “butterfly,” which is when someone flutters their tongue on your bellybutton. Wow!
But I was 10, and 90% of the show went over my head. To me, it was a funny, weird show about dancing babies and powerful women who were also hot and unmarried in their 30’s. And that mattered!
Anyway, here’s a random list of impressions from rewatching the show again as a 30-year-old adult.
1. Ally McBeal is very Freudian. There are so many Freudian elements in the character development. For starters, John Cage is clearly stuck in the anal-retentive stage, thanks to his neurosis, love of being in a “hole” and insistence on having a “clean bowl” in the bathroom. At one point, Richard even suggests that he loves Nelle (Portia de Rossi) because her “porcelain skin” reminds him of his toilet bowl. Ally and John lapse into Freudian slips often, and Ally and her roommate Renée sit down and discuss Freud’s works. It’s clear David E. Kelly was a fan.
2. Everyone ever is on this show. Lucy Liu, Portia de Rossi and Jane Krakowski are huge. But did you realize that Robert Downey Jr. was a major character? What a get! James Marsden gets a season, Hayden Panettiere shows up out of the blue and even Mariah Carey even makes a cameo! That doesn’t even cover all the musical guests.
3. Ally is very skinny. Which, to be fair, was the main criticism of the show at the time. I even remember SNL doing an “Ally McMeal” sketch about a meal that came with a toy you could stick down your throat to make yourself vomit. What I didn’t notice was how much pride Ally took in being thin, including yelling at her boyfriend Victor (Jon Bon Jovi!) for painting her having “cellulite.” Also, a love interest at one point nicknames Ally “the thin mint,” which seems gross. This makes the show seem less self-aware, or maybe it just liked being immature, which it definitely did with glee. (See: Richard.)
4. It’s imperfectly feminist. Their firm specializes in sexual harassment, mostly so the show could explore sexism from “both sides,” even sometimes both sides of the female perspective. Do women want to be protected in the workplace, or is it coddling? Should women act like men to gain power, or embrace being emotionally intelligent and “soft?” And then there’s Ally herself. Is being a career woman still feminist if you really just wish you were married with kids? Also, it features many high-powered women of color, who are all major parts of the show. But it’s not perfect. One episode about a transgender character who has a “fetish” for prostitution did not hold up very well.
5. Also, Billy is creepy AF. Billy’s plot line goes down south really fast. After being called a “chauvinist pig,” he joins a support group for chauvinist pigs, which is basically the 90’s version of a Men’s Rights group. His fellow “pigs” convince him that his wife Georgia should serve his every need, and it ruins his marriage. After that, he starts walking around with a troupe of models, and eventually dies of a brain tumor. What? This whole plot line was super disturbing!
6. The “Sudden Daughter” element was dumb. In case you didn’t get this far, Hayden Panetierre shows up mid season 5 as Ally’s daughter from an egg that had been harvested in college. In retrospect, this is when my family stopped watching because the show was hot garbage by then. However, it IS when my love of Hayden P. (aka Juliette Barnes) began!
7. Season 5 just sucks. Renée goes away. So does Ling. Georgia is gone. If I could “ghost of Christmas past” myself I would have said just stop at season 4.
8. Robert Downey Jr. is a very good singer. Did you know that?! He sings all the time on Ally McBeal. Everyone does, really. ALSO: at one point Renée totally eclipses Vonda Shephard as the main singer on the show. It’s like she said, “Ok, I’ll sign the contract again but I’M the singer now!” Also sorry this photo is so bad—it was the 90’s, so this is all I could find when googling “Renée Ally McBeal singing.”
9. The best character was Ally’s original therapist, Tracy (Tracey Ullman). She insisted everyone get a “theme song” and had a button that would trigger laugh sounds if a patient said something “pathetic.” After watching a ton of therapist characters that knock off Jennifer Melfi in The Sopranos, I found this refreshing. To me it really embodied everything purposely weird and “offensive” about Ally McBeal. The show was pure id, but in a brainy way. And that’s worth a rewatch, even if you skip through.