»  National Review Online

May 22nd, 2001

  A Date with Ally McBeal


I watch very little TV. This isn't snobbery, just busyness. I have two small kids, two demanding jobs, two complicated hobbies and an old house. There is also a wife in there somewhere, I believe. As the current cliché has it: not enough hours in the day. My TV-watching schedule looks like this. I try to be there for the first few minutes of Bill O'Reilly at 8 pm. His opening editorial is sharp and punchy, and I want to see if he has any interesting topics or guests later in the program. If he has, and I feel idle, I'll watch the whole thing. If I skip church Sunday morning, which I do regrettably often, I look to see who Tim Russert's got on, and watch if it interests me. Russert is a good, mean interviewer: born 500 years earlier, he'd have been working for Torquemada. If I'm still awake at 11:35 pm on a weekday, which doesn't happen often, I like to catch Jay Leno's Tonight Show monologue. I allow myself one sitcom, though sitcoms are going through a dry patch at the moment, and nothing has really taken my fancy since the demise of my beloved Married With Children back in 1997. (Ed O'Neil is about 40 times funnier than Jim Carrey. Christina Applegate is 40 times better looking than Nicole Kidman, and about 200 times better at acting. Why don't these people get more work?) I've been making do with Malcolm in the Middle, whose general tendency towards life-is-tough-but-still-wonderful sappiness is redeemed by occasional flashes of brilliance. That's about it for my TV viewing. I catch glimpses of Friends because my wife likes it; but the glimpses I get make me run screaming from the room with my hands over my ears.

Not watching much TV creates problems. TV is now the principal vehicle of our popular culture. Anti-TV snobbery has pretty much disappeared, even among the intellectual classes. Believe me, I hang out with these people. The writer-hero of Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale was surprised, when he began mixing with writers, to find that they never talked about literature. What they mostly talked about, he learned, was money, and their wrangles with publishers. I was vouchsafed a similar revelation when I ascended into the exalted company of NR staffers, public policy intellectuals and cultural commentators. Conversation up here on Olympus breaks down as about 20 per cent big ideas, 30 per cent political gossip, the rest sports, movies, TV and stock tips. Not watching much TV, I hit a lot of dead air in conversation. There should be some TV equivalent of Cliff Notes for people like me. For weeks now I have been hearing the name of Robert Downey Jr., but I had no idea who this man was until last night.

What happened last night was that for the first time ever I watched an episode of Ally McBeal. This was inspired by something a friend told me. This friend is a thoughtful and intelligent guy — intelligent enough, at any rate, to have made himself rich beyond the dreams of avarice. I take his opinions about things seriously. Apropos nothing much, he mentioned in conversation that he occasionally watched A. McB. and that when he did, it inspired the following reflections in him.

He went on to say — and this is by no means a puritanical guy — that he thought the show "celebrated degeneracy." I thought: wow, gotta see this. I grabbed a TV schedule, and found I was just in time: the season finale was to be aired last night, May 21st. So at 9 pm I sat down with a glass of wine-from-a-box and a bag of nacho chips and tuned in.

Turns out that Ally McBeal is a "dramedy," which is to say, a light-hearted drama without a laugh track. Ally, the heroine, is a thirtysomething lawyer at a Boston firm. In some brief mise en scène flashbacks before the opening credits we were given to understand that she had recently broken up with her lover, after catching him in intimacy with his ex-wife. (This lover was Robert Downey Jr.'s character, who has been written out of the show because of a drug problem Downey has.) Ally had also had another serious love affair before that one, but the guy died. The episode I saw was a neat little story about some junk case Ally's firm takes on. A high school senior wants to bring an action against his longtime girlfriend for breach of contract because, after promising to go to the senior prom with him, she's changed her mind. The lad is said, by the pastor of his church (acted by Leslie Jordan, who pretty much walks off with the show), to have a great singing voice, and was supposed to sing a solo at the prom. Without his girl, though, he can't bring himself to do it — he's a really sensitive kid, and really loves the girl. The judge throws the case out. Ally persuades the kid to go to his prom by agreeing to go with him as his date; he sings, and is a sensation. She walks him back to his parents' house, and they remind each other, 17-year-old and thirtysomething, that life goes on, and they will both find new love. That was pretty much it — not a lot to hang a one-hour show on. There's a small subplot about a bimbo one of the firm's partners has hired to be his secretary, who gets the cold shoulder from the women lawyers just on account (unless I missed something) of her bimbosity. The rest is Ally missing her man — both men, in fact: the one she's just broken up with, and the previous one who died.

Watching a show like this for the first time, concentrating on it as a product of our culture, you notice a number of things. For example: what a very limited medium TV is, and what tremendous skill writers and producers have developed over this last 50 years at working within those limitations. You need a lot of closeups of faces, for example, if you're going to get much in the way of emotion across on the tiny screen; so your faces need to be interesting and expressive. Calista Flockhart, who plays Ally, meets these criteria very well. She's one of those women you look at (if you're a guy, I mean) and think: "Nah." Then you look at her again and think: "Hey." You can't make up your mind whether she's pretty or plain. Ms. Flockhart has taken a lot of, er, ribbing for being so skinny. She's way too skinny for my taste, too, but that just means her body is like her face: interesting. The two fortyish male partners at the law firm have the sort of lived-in male faces that make you think these would be good guys to have on your side, and formidable enemies. Which is what you would want to think about lawyers.

So where am I with my friend's comments? A lack of moral structure? Pass. The episode I saw didn't really go there. The nearest we got was when Ally tells a girlfriend she's going to the prom. "Oh," says the friend, "I remember my senior prom. I went with Peter Puppell. Lost my virginity that night." Ally, incredulous: "You lost your virginity to a guy names Peter Puppell?" Friend: "No, I lost it to another guy, don't remember his name …" Sure, it's coarse, but we've been seeing a lot worse on our screens for a couple of decades now, and this level of coarseness barely registers any more, even if you have an 8-year-old daughter asleep upstairs. I believe I can steer Nellie Derbyshire through this stuff when the time comes. I suppose all parents believe this, and I suppose a lot of them find out they are wrong; but I have some strategies I'm working on.

Totally addictive? I see what he means. Taken simply as a piece of work, the thing was wonderfully well crafted. As is always the case on TV, the people didn't look much like real people — nobody was fat, or ungroomed, or ugly, or ill, and everybody lived and worked in the Palace of Versailles — but they filled out their parts very well, and the script was fluent and witty. (When Ally goes to a store to buy a prom dress, the store assistant raises her eyebrows and says: "A prom dress? Aren't you a little … vintage?") Ally's sense of loss and loneliness was buttressed by one really good special-effects dream sequence and some visual hallucinations that tottered on the edge of being hokey without ever quite falling over. Anything as well done as that can hold your attention. I won't myself be blocking out time to watch the next season's Ally McBeal, but I can see that if my tastes were just slightly different, my threshold of tolerance for Gen-X yuppies and their fool problems a bit lower, or if I just had more time on my hands, I might.

"Real art?" Aw, come on. There is a school of thought saying that what we think of as heavy culture — serious novels, poetry, orchestral music, the theater, the kind of painting and sculpture that gets exhibited in galleries — is all just an inertial attachment to forms that are basically dead, and that the scholars of a.d. 2500 will marvel at those artefacts we regard as lowbrow: rap music, perhaps, Bugs Bunny, TV "dramedies." Shakespeare's plays, these people tell you, were mass culture in their time, scoffed at by the intelligentsia, who were busy writing Latin alcaics and arguing fine points of theology. Same for bel canto opera and the epics of Homer.

Well, fiddlesticks. Rossini may have been awfully popular, but that doesn't alter the fact that a Rossini aria is ferociously difficult to sing — requires years of training, in fact. Listen to three different singers tackling "Una voce poco fa" and see how many different things they bring out of it. This stuff is difficult and deep. Shakespeare was popular, too, but for goodness' sake listen to him. Here's a Shakespeare heroine whose man, like Ally McBeal's first, up and died on her:

His legs bestrid the ocean: his reared arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tunèd spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty
There was no winter in't: an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like, they showed his back above
The element they lived in …

They don't talk like that in Ally McBeal, and they don't sing stuff like "Una voce," either. Yes, it's true: there are moments in history when the large general public is receptive to great art. Perhaps it's just accidental: perhaps, as Kitto said about the ordinary townspeople who attended the Greek dramas: "If anything worse had been available, they would have taken it." I don't know why this is, and I bet nobody else does, either; but I do feel certain that this is not one of those moments.

My personal opinion is that we are living in a sort of deep cultural trough, and that practically nothing from our age, either low- or highbrow, will still be interesting to anyone in 400 years time. I feel sure, at any rate, that for all the formidable craft that went into making last night's Ally McBeal, and for all that it was an agreeable way to fritter away an hour, for anyone that has an hour to fritter nowadays, yet six months from now I shall be hard put to remember anything at all about Ally and her problems; while an image like that of Antony's "dolphin-like" delights, showing "his back above / The element they lived in," is with you for life when once you've heard it, unless your soul is made of zinc. I know, I know, I opened this piece by forswearing snobbery. Let's face it though: TV is junk.