Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle TV Eye

By Belinda Acosta

MARCH 22, 1999:  Ally McBeal troubles me. As the title character of the show, Calista Flockhart's Ally is the current crown princess of the Fox Network and perhaps all of week-night prime time. It says something that Ally is mentioned by first name. You know a character has gotten into your consciousness, or under your skin, when you talk about her as if she were a real person, and even a friend. I can't quite take it that far. Something about Ally McBeal bugs me.

It's not the short skirts, or her flights of fancy that test the limits of how far out there viewers will go with her. (In one episode, she defended a man fired from his job because he claimed to see unicorns. At the end of the show, Ally reunites with the unicorn she saw in her childhood.) It's not even her tiresome on-again, off-again yearning for Billy, her childhood sweetheart with whom she nearly has an affair (the season's not over yet). Most of the time, Ally reminds me of a pre-pubescent teen parading as a grown-up. Ally's cat-fight (i.e. boxing match) with Billy's wife Georgia brought this image into focus for me. But even that is not what bugs me about her.

As usual, I was late to tune into Ally McBeal. Once I did, I didn't want to keep watching, but couldn't stop. Calista Flockhart has an indelibly quirky charm as the terminally self-absorbed Ally. The show's dancing baby, character theme songs, and literal representations of internal thoughts and feelings have expanded television's narrative conventions in a humorous, sometimes painfully adept way. Who couldn't understand how Ally felt when a half-dozen arrows whizzed from out of the blue and into her chest upon hearing that a man in whom she was interested was unavailable? Those conventions aside, another thing I'm trying to figure out is how Ally fits into the constellation of single, independent women occasionally showcased on television. Who is part of that constellation? After taking "a moment" (to use a "McBealism" approved by the dozen or so Web sites devoted to the show), this is my estimation: Ann Marie played by Marlo Thomas in That Girl (1966-71); Mary Richards played by Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77); and Murphy Brown played by Candice Bergen in Murphy Brown (1988-98).

Coincidentally, these three shows premiered during the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties respectively, and each character could be said to be the "everywoman" of each decade. There were other series featuring women as the title or main character: Julia, The Doris Day Show, Alice, One Day at a Time, and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, to name a few. But those shows featured divorced women, or women with children who were divorced or widowed. With the exception of Murphy Brown, who had a baby late in her series, Ann Marie, Mary Richards, Murphy, and Ally are single, childless women, with clear professional aspirations or lives. They are also all middle-class white women, which says something about what is being offered as television's "everywoman." Nevertheless, this is what there is to work with. Which brings me to the crux of these ruminations. Is Ally McBeal the "everywoman" of the Nineties? How does Ally McBeal measure up to Ann, Mary, and Murphy? Does she belong in the same constellation or elsewhere, in a galaxy of her own?

Although That Girl is maligned for providing no memorable episodes, it is important for being the first of the "independent women" series. An aspiring actress, living in New York, Ann Marie was a poofy flip and effervescent personality. While Ally shares some of Ann Marie's chutzpah, Ally is definitely a more somber, self-reflective version of Ann Marie. Though That Girl is dubbed as "neofeminist," it's a mark of the times that Ann Marie was not truly alone in the big city. Wouldn't you know that on her first day in New York, she meets her love interest Don Hollinger, an executive with a news magazine? Unlike Ally, who pines for Billy or some suitable substitute, Ann Marie didn't want to settle down. A marriage didn't occur before the series was canceled, but it was assumed that Ann Marie married Don and gave up that silly acting business once and for all. As for taking up with a married man, it just wasn't possible. When would Ann Marie have time? She barely had time for Don and besides, good girls didn't do such a thing.

Although The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered the year before That Girl was canceled, Mary Richards is more than once-removed from Ann Marie in style and temperament. Not only was she not looking for a man in the way Ally is, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered, Mary Richards' back story included a canceled wedding. That's not to say Mary Richards was lonely. Though it was never dealt with directly, Mary had a sex life. (Think of all those times she returned to her apartment after a date -- bright and early the next morning.) Unlike Ally, who constantly gnashes her teeth over men, relationships with men, sex with men, and the lack of sex with men, Mary Richards knew how to get what she needed and managed to get on with her life. Mary's struggle was making her way as a professional in a culture that still looked sidelong at a woman who chose career over marriage and childbearing. Mary's advice to Ally regarding Billy? Don't do it -- but if you do, don't save any evidence, keep the memory, and repent in some really big way.

The idea of the single, independent heroine gelled in the 1980s with Murphy Brown. Murphy's bombastic personality could singe facial hair. She had her vulnerabilities, but they were well-guarded and revealed only to the closest of friends. Unlike Ally, however, Murphy Brown's consciousness was tuned outward, a product of her liberal leanings and her career as a journalist. Her childbirth out of wedlock, and later, her struggle with breast cancer were literal calls to action as well as outside scrutiny (Vice President Dan Quayle). It's unlikely that Murphy Brown would have patience with Ally. Can't you hear Murphy Brown go off on Ally?: "What? Are you crazy? Do you know how hard women have worked to make it possible to get where you are? Unicorns? Who has time for unicorns? Is that what you see in Billy? You see him as one, big, stallion-like unicorn you can ride bareback? And when was the last time you ate something?"

Murphy Brown would interrogate Ally mercilessly, but Ally would punch back. Ultimately, that's what makes her a part of the independent women constellation forged in That Girl, expanded in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and buttressed by Murphy Brown. As emotionally waif-like and quirky as Ally McBeal is, she is no pushover when it comes to critiquing the universe according to Ally McBeal. Or maybe it would be more accurate to call it the universe of Ally McBeal. And that's what bugs me: the fact that she actually has time to take those long trips around her navel. There are plenty of fans who are willing to take that tour, but some of us have to get up early and go to work. For myself, I think I'll start passing over Ally McBeal and tune in more often to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now there's a gal who kicks ass.


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