This Woman Is:

Carla Hall is a Times staff writer

She went to Harvard Law School, works at a tony boutique law firm in Boston and still manages to get to her sculpting class the night before a big day in court. She has captivated a jury with her closing arguments, but she appalled a cathedral full of people with an impromptu Henny Youngman-esque eulogy at the funeral of one of her law professors.

With the precision of a surgical strike, she once tripped a woman in a supermarket who was rude to her; and with the wobbliness of a toddler, she once rose from her seat and tumbled to the floor in front of one of her law firm colleagues who happens to be her ex-boyfriend (still loves him) and his lawyer bombshell wife (hates her but kind of likes her too).

She's been known to enjoy a sexual fling with a great-looking guy (most memorably, the well-endowed himbo model in the sculpting class) but hallucinates a dancing baby, the apparent manifestation of her 27-year-old biological clock. She has committed the transgression of sleeping with a married man, but she has never, judging by the reed-thin looks of her, sinfully overeaten so much as one fat-free Entenmann's coffeecake.

She is real and not even close. But mostly, she is the centerpiece of her eponymous television show, "Ally McBeal"--deftly played by Calista Flockhart, six years Ally's senior and a respected New York stage actress--and the newest lightning rod for all the prickly issues of romance, power, work and how to dress in the office. Like no other recent television character, she has endeared herself to some and infuriated other viewers.

Depending on who's watching, she's smart, refreshingly real and funny, or whiny, ditsy and verging on unprofessional. She is annoyingly waif-like, fiddles with her hair as incessantly as a high schooler and, when caught in an awkward moment (constantly), stammers so much you want to slap her.

"To me, she seems like an anorexic, self-indulgent little munchkin," says Elaine Showalter, a Princeton professor of English and a feminist literary critic who did a stint as a television critic for People magazine a few years ago. "I had a big fight with some male friends who absolutely adored her. She is the little shiksa baby dream goddess."

Incidentally, Showalter confesses that her 31-year-old daughter, who works in Washington as a speech writer, really likes the show.

Hairdresser Nicole Alpert finds Ally's neuroses endearing.

"It's nice to see a woman portrayed as bright, been to law school, passed the bar, and see her being insecure," says Alpert, 32, who listens all day to her clients' neurotic concerns. "That's reassuring to someone like me who didn't finish high school and went to beauty school."

But whether Ally grates or ingratiates, the series is drawing viewers. The hourlong show--which creator David E. Kelley considers a comedy--premiered in September on Fox on Monday nights at 9 p.m., quickly ascending from promising fledgling status to the newest hit with buzz. The show is already renewed for next season and is being honored Monday at the Museum of Television & Radio's 15th annual Television Festival.

It also has garnered a raft of magazine stories, fueled a Fox Web site with people's comments, inspired a regular Monday night viewing party at the popular Legal Seafoods in Boston ("Ally's" setting) and earned two Golden Globe awards--best comedy and best actress in a comedy. When Flockhart won her Golden Globe, she got up from her table at the ceremony and, in a perfect Ally moment, started toward the stage in the wrong direction, mugged in confusion for the camera, then finally found her way to the podium.

The otherworldly, computer-generated dancing baby has been avidly passed around by e-mail. That's how Nicole Alpert's father, Hollywood publicist David Kramer, found out about the show. A friend e-mailed him the dancing baby and he decided to tune in. He found Ally appealing--until he didn't.

"As a younger man, I was very attracted to crazy women," says Kramer. "I think many men are. And Ally McBeal is a crazy woman."

The informal consensus seems to be that men are adoring Ally McBeal and her wacky, cryptic manner. But Stanford graduate student John Perry says to count him out of the fan club. Perry says he was at a dinner party recently where debate over "Ally McBeal" was the conversation du jour.

"Everyone trashed it except one woman," he reports. "Most of them, like me, had started out liking it. I feel like she's such a bundle of uninteresting neuroses. A little goes a long way. I can't make it through a whole episode."

It may be that she's the kind of character you love to trash. She's maddening but funny.

In the pantheon of television heroines who are career women, Ally is a creation unto herself--perhaps not as retro as some real-life late-'90s professional women might fear but more a fin de siecle result of all the women who have come before her.

The late '60s produced plucky aspiring actress Ann Marie, of "That Girl." The '70s gave birth to the beloved, hard-working but confused Mary Richards of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." The '80s spawned the tough-edged female lawyers of "L.A. Law," who proved they could be as brilliant in the courtroom as men--and as ruthless. (Remember the shrewd and diabolical Rosalind Shays--eventually dispatched with a stunning misstep into an elevator shaft?)

And the late '80s and early '90s were staked out by Murphy Brown, who was as bawdy, successful and megalomaniacal as any man in her position might be.

Now comes Ally McBeal. She's way past the naivete of "That Girl," and insecure as she may sometimes be, she's not the simpering patsy that Mary Richards was. With unassailable credentials--Ivy League law degree, law review, a good job--she seems to posit that even well-schooled sophisticated women are still girlish and giddy.

That alone makes some professional women who came of age watching and loving the steely women of "L.A. Law" balk at Ally McBeal.

Says one lawyer who worked as a litigator for a large law firm, "I see ditsy associates all the time but they don't make it. It's not like your personality changes when you walk into a courtroom."

Shelly McMillan, 36, practices in her own law firm with four other attorneys. Her professional life bears much more resemblance to the gritty legal world of "The Practice" (another David Kelley show).

"I don't know too many lawyers who are kind of bubble-headed. But I must say it's really funny," she says of "Ally." "Lawyers are not really this obsessed with their sex lives and other people's sex lives--then I thought, 'Oh, yeah, there was some of that going on at that big firm I used to be at.' "

Of course, as some lawyers quickly point out, the show in general is a fantasy. Take, for example, the fact that Ally's young, ambitious male boss--who lusts after older women's neck wattles--is having an affair with an older, established female judge.

"The idea that some young kid at a law firm is having a stud-muffin relationship with a judge? No judge would permit that," says Amy Forbes, a 38-year-old partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

But all that said, there is still something appealing to some women lawyers about Ally's struggle to rein in all the threads of her life.

"With other shows, they've been afraid to show the vulnerable side, the silly side, of women professionals; it's not PC," says Lesley Wolf, 45, a retired partner from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher--and the person who first mentioned the series to her former colleague Forbes. "This show takes a few more chances at letting women be women. She annoys me some of the time . . . but I think women would find her someone they could relate to. She's not the older guard of women lawyers that I represent."

Jessie Kohler ("like the toilet," she says, referring to the spelling of her name, in an Ally McBeal-like aside), a 27-year-old third-year associate at Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, says of Ally: "I think she is me to the extent that you have a lot of other things going on in your life that you're trying to deal with at the same time that you're working--and those things intersect quite a bit."

Susan Estrich, the USC law professor and commentator, has not seen the show but dismisses frets over a TV character who is a lawyer but also ditsy and insecure at times.

"That sounds to me like the most honest thing on television. Every woman I knew who went to Harvard Law School has had moments of being ditsy and insecure--myself included," says Estrich, 45, who holds the distinction of having been the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review. She also applauds Ally wearing short skirts. "Well, so do I--and I'm a lot older."

Nothing about Ally seems to have generated more controversy than her sleekly short-skirted suits.

"No one dresses like that in a downtown law firm. Period," says Forbes, who figures she never wears a skirt "significantly above my knee."

Creator Kelley, who writes every episode, has playfully responded to the criticism about the short skirts. In last Monday's episode, a toothy female attorney who is opposing counsel in a courtroom case takes Ally aside and suggests that her skirts are too short. "We all know they're not real," Ally retorts with a quick glance at the woman's chest. "Those . . . teeth." (Well, that's Ally for you.)

The Fox network is sensitive to Ally's courtroom behavior.

"There's a general concern from the network that Ally seem professional at work," says one Fox executive. "She has her own unique style, but she's always going to be competent in the courtroom."

Kelley, an attorney himself before he turned to TV writing, is less than enamored of that critique from the network.

"It's not something I agree with," he says. "I believe she is competent in the courtroom. I also go back to the idea that it's a comedy. In the [last] episode she actually gets into a smile-off with opposing counsel."

Certainly, a lot of what draws viewers is the quality of the show in general--the sophisticated, playful writing, the production values and all the other characters around Ally. She doesn't exist in a vacuum. She's one of a passel of eccentric characters--most of whom share a unisex bathroom at work. Her avaricious, older-woman-lusting boss is filled with self-styled philosophy. ("Everyone's alone, Ally. Being in a relationship just makes it easier to take," is perhaps his most famous one-liner.) There's the nerdy, odd but brilliant partner, the know-it-all secretary who invented a "face-bra," Ally's brassy lawyer roommate and, of course, her ex-boyfriend's wife, Georgia, played by the blondly beautiful Courtney Thorne-Smith, late of "Melrose Place."

Still, Ally herself is relentlessly scrutinized in a way that few television characters are.

Kelley, who is also creator of "Chicago Hope" and "Picket Fences" (and a former executive producer of "L.A. Law"), claims to be as perplexed as anyone over the extraordinary examination that viewers give Ally--and the show--each week.

"On one Monday night, on 'The Practice' we'll have an episode on physician-assisted suicide," says Kelley. "On 'Ally,' there will be a story about a romance. And the letters of outrage that pour in the next day are not 'How could you show that physician assisting at someone's death?' but 'How can you have Ally's skirts so short?' And 'What's with that unisex bathroom?' "

Kelley says that Ally is neither a generational archetype nor a television rendering of any one person he had in mind. (And, no, she's not based on his wife, actress Michelle Pfeiffer.)

"If someone comes up to me and says, 'She's my role model,' I say, 'Don't,' " says Kelley. "While you find her endearing this week, you may find her objectionable next week. Ally is Ally. She's not supposed to represent a gender or age. She's her own beast."

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

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