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In Regards to ‘Ally,’ This Critic Says, ‘Oops’

Fox is at it again, airing one of those “shock” programs that it’s notorious for, the likes of “The World’s Deadliest Police Chases” and “The World’s Deadliest Swarms” that so many Americans find revolting, tasteless and exploitative. Tonight brings the most insidious, most terrifying of these yet.

The World’s Whiniest TV Heroine.

Its other name is “Ally McBeal.”

All right, “Ally” addicts, hold your tempers. In the spirit of Fox, I deployed this outrageous hyperbole just to get your attention. The protagonist of this new hit series is not the world’s whiniest anything.

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But . . . in the Top 5, maybe?

“Ally McBeal” breezily follows the angst-ridden single-hood of a young female attorney struggling to cope in a prestigious Boston law firm where a former flame works. When I watched it for an initial review in September, it was dislike at first sight.

I wrote that it “has nothing between the ears and is notable largely for boobs and Barbies--walking shampoo commercials with masses of glistening long hair and long legs in short skirts tailored to babe-watching.” Pouring it on, I also dismissed it as “superficiality and pseudo-hipness gussied up in gloss.”

Very catchy. But, well, you know, among the most deflating aspects of this criticism business are the constant reminders of your fallibility.

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“Ally McBeal” got many rave reviews, and I seem to have been in a tiny minority of professional TV watchers who didn’t like it at all. Although “Ally McBeal” hasn’t yet approached the Monday-night buzz of the show it follows, “Melrose Place,” I hear only praise about it, both from chats with viewers and from the mail.

The latest is a blistering letter from a community college teacher in Florida who not only excoriated me for writing negatively of “Ally McBeal,” but also lectured me on the attributes of its star, Calista Flockhart, whom he lumped with great ladies of the stage--noting, for example, that she made her own much-lauded Broadway debut in “The Glass Menagerie” opposite Julie Harris. He added: “If you know who that is.”

Not know who Julie Harris is? Puhleeeeeze! Did I watch “Knots Landing” for nothing?

In any case, fairness being a signature of this column along with exquisite taste, acute perception, sage insight and humility, I decided to catch up on “Ally McBeal” to see what I had been missing.

A bit, as it turns out.

*

Oh, Ally still has her irritating side while looking for her dream guy and mooning over her former boyfriend, Billy (Gil Bellows). The impulsiveness, volatility, mood swings, insecurities, self-obsession and tendency to self-destruct, you can tolerate. Her flaws make her all the more human and interesting. But enough, already, with the woeful self-pity, never more overbearing than when she takes those gloomy walks, usually a couple per episode, hanging her head in a melancholy daze and swinging her attache case while dragging her long legs across the pavement, to bluesy rocker Vonda Shepard’s tunes.

Getting her down two weeks ago was the state bar review she faced after being arrested for aggravated assault and shoplifting after an argument she provoked with another shopper in a supermarket. Reflecting on her mental competency to practice law were that incident and (in previous episodes) her assaulting of a pedestrian and her giving a bizarre eulogy at the funeral of a law professor with whom she had an adulterous affair while in college.

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“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Ally, er, whined later.

Despite her Capt. Queeg-like performance, the state bar hearing ended well for her due to a heavy-handed feminist harangue against sexism by her friend, amorous playgirl Judge Whipper Cone (Dyan Cannon), leading to a maudlin ending that sagged under the tonnage of its own sentimentalism.

Yet the same episode also had some terrific moments, most of them derived from the ingeniously oddball supporting characters that executive producer David E. Kelley has injected into the series. They include Ally’s likably dishonorable boss, Richard Fish (Greg Germann), who dismissively shouts “bygones” when someone brings up something from the past he chooses to ignore; Ally’s gushy secretary, Elaine (Jane Krakow-ski), who has invented a “face bra” to battle aging; and a judge named Happy Boyle (Phil Leeds), with a courtroom fixation for dental hygiene. Judge Happy to attorney Ally: “Let me see your teeth. Hygiene is important to this court.”

As important as courtroom antics and eccentric jurists are to Kelley, this is not news to those familiar with the broad, farcical trial sequences in his former CBS series, “Picket Fences.” Kelley’s unconventional view of jurisprudence carries over here, one example being Ally facing in court her roommate and closest friend, Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson), an assistant district attorney.

*

Another example came last week in an episode that in many ways was quite inspired. It included an obese opposing attorney falling for Ally after she gave him life-saving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (“Oh, God, the onions”) following his collapse in the courthouse. “I never had a kiss like that before,” he later told her dreamily.

The story turned poignant when, while rejecting his puppy love, Ally indirectly encouraged him to break up with his fiancee, whom he said he didn’t love. Later, the jilted fiancee, who was heavyset herself, sadly told Ally, “People like me and Harry, we don’t get the partners of our dreams. Sometimes when you hold out for everything, you walk away with nothing.”

In fact, the large-sized crowd may, indeed, find dream partners as often as others do. Still, this was one of those uncommon TV pauses for tender reflection that continued to resonate well after the closing credits. As did the advice that Ally got from her firm’s weirdest lawyer (Peter MacNicol), who urged her not to shed her ideals, give into cynicism and let the world defeat her.

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In TV tradition, the episode knotted its loose ends too efficiently. Yet Ally herself remains a loose end, and this is not traditional television.

And about that previous review?

Bygones.

* “Ally McBeal” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox (Channel 11).


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