Twenty years ago Friday, Fox premiered a legal comedy-drama that quickly became a water-cooler sensation. The show, “Ally McBeal,” brought new shadings to the word quirky, as almost every member of the ensemble cast exhibited offbeat, adorable idiosyncrasies. Nose whistling? Visions of dancing babies? A wattle fetish? Yes, yes, and yes.
The show, about a lawyer who was single, also brought new shadings — or, actually, old shadings — to the 1990s notion of feminism, when Ally’s face landed on the cover of Time magazine above the question, “Is Feminism Dead?” Ally, so self-absorbed, ditsy, and obsessed with her fertility clock, was all about finding Mr. Right, which struck some as just wrong. If the Bechdel test had been in operation back then, “Ally McBeal” would have failed miserably.
The Boston-set series was created by David E. Kelley, and, despite the feminism controversy, it was pretty imaginative for its time. The narrative techniques were original, and they were surprising. Now we’re accustomed to fantasy sequences, song interludes, viral videos (like the dancing baby), and legal cases that directly reflect the lives of the lawyers. But back then, these flourishes still seemed relatively fresh on TV. In one episode, Kelley even pulled a meta-trick by having his heroine dream that she was on the cover of Time magazine as “the face of feminism.” It’s hard to imagine series such as “Scrubs” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” without “Ally McBeal” as their progenitor.
What ultimately soured me on the show, which won an Emmy for best comedy in 1999, was that ensemble. The characters became annoying pretty quickly, as Kelley hammered on their eccentricities once too often. I remember cringing every time Ally stammered or let her hair fall into her eyes, and I felt no grief after hearing the last of Richard Fish’s Fishisms and seeing the last of John Cage’s dismounts.
Ah well, bygones.