Dancing babies, dream sequences and other surreal hallucinations made for a bizarre backdrop to a show that was ostensibly about lawyers at a Boston firm, but then again, there was very little about Ally McBeal that followed any kind of standard. The show starred Calista Flockhart in the title role as a young professional who initially went to law school while following the love of her life. After a breakup, and
an unsuccessful stint at her first job as a lawyer, she ended up at her new job where coincidentally, her missing main man Billy had also found employment. Of course, things are never quite that easy, and Billy was now married, setting up a situation where all kinds of crazy sparks were sure to fly. This was compounded by Ally’s vivid imagination that would manifest in the form of a fantasy world accessible to viewers but invisible to anyone in her immediate surroundings.
On the surface, Ally McBeal had all of the trappings of a fairly standard courtroom "dramedy," but the show continually turned expectations on their ear in order to deliver one of the strangest television programs of the 1990s. Single, quirky and empowered, Ally dressed the part of a fashion plate and led a powerful ensemble cast of equally offbeat friends, including seemingly unbeatable lawyer John Cage (played with gusto by Peter MacNicol). The show also launched the careers of Lucy Liu (of later Charlie’s Angels fame) and Portia de Rossi (later in Arrested Development) into the stratosphere, as each of them managed to parlay their attention-gathering turn on the show into a flood of future roles.
Ally McBeal’s relatively short run may have been indicative of a reluctance on the part of audiences to accept the hybrid, fantastical let’s-all-occasionally-break-into-song style of writing combined with vaguely sexist undertones. The show attracted its share of criticism from women’s groups who felt that the main character merely paid lip service to the idea of independence and that the program frequently portrayed its female characters as weak, needy and in search of a man to fix all of their problems. However, in many respects the program was ground breaking, allowing writers to treat reality with a little less respect than was previously allowed, ushering in the freedom that would allow for the success of less ambitious comedies such as Scrubs in the decade that followed.
Go dancing baby! Everybody dance now!