»  The Straggler, No. 39

February 13th, 2006

  Getting Pally With Ally


"Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil," commanded Moses very wisely. The true-born straggler ("one that is separated by wandering off in some irregular manner from others" — Webster's Third) finds no difficulty in cleaving to this injunction. We stragglers are constitutionally averse to following a multitude to do anything, whether evil, good, or morally neutral.

While this reflexive contrariety preserves the straggler from many pitfalls, it does create minor problems, nowhere more so than in his appreciation of popular culture. I was, for example, slow to "get" the Beatles. They came to perform at my home town during my last year of living there, before I went off to college. This was a sensation among my coevals. The Beatles' second hit single had recently come out, and there was an LP in the works, keenly awaited. A girl slightly known to me got her name in the local newspaper by waiting on line in the snow for 22 hours to buy tickets to the performance. I disdained the whole fuss, believed in fact that I had outgrown pop music altogether, to advance into the richer, more intellectual world of jazz. A few months later the Beatles were a world-wide sensation, and would be doing no more gigs in provincial English movie theaters. A year or so after that, I started to like their stuff … by which time it was of course stale Brie to the people I was moving among.

This is what it means to be a straggler. We are constantly finding ourselves at a conversational loss where matters of pop culture are concerned. We catch up eventually, but by then the caravan has moved on. Everyone else has debated the thing to death, absorbed and internalized any real significance it might have had, and forgotten all the details. We are left talking to ourselves, at any rate for a decade or two, until the artefact in question becomes a legitimate object of nostalgia.

It is therefore with an air of apology that I report my most recent addiction. Three or four years ago I had a brief exchange of opinions with a friend. His opinion was that the TV show Ally McBeal was a work of true art and would endure in saecula saeculorum, world without end, Amen, like Euripides and Shakespeare. I had never seen the show when he made this comment, but I watched an episode, was unimpressed, and reported my unimpressedness to him. We exchanged a couple more emails on the topic, then the discussion lapsed … Until last week, when a large box from my friend's Texas address appeared on my doorstep. Inside was his Christmas present to me: six neat cases, each case containing five DVDs, each DVD holding four episodes of Ally McBeal.

For those who watch as little TV as I do — I catch the news, the World Series, and occasional random fragments of everything else — perhaps I should explain that Ally McBeal was a "dramedy," which is to say a highbrow sitcom, witty observation of life fortified with some social or psychological relevance and grad-school catch-phrases. This particular show aired weekly from 1997 to 2002: altogether 112 episodes, of which I missed all but one. That one was late in the series (episode 91), so of course I had no clue who was who. I had, to use a word that was I believe popularized by this very show, none of the backstory.

Now I am wiser. At the time of writing I have only watched the first twelve episodes, but I now know the principals, their histories and personality quirks. While I remain unconvinced by my friend's thesis, I will allow that the creators of this show did a thing that every novelist and dramatist strives to do, all the great ones and some of the non-greats succeeding: they have created a world. It is a very circumscribed world, to be sure, with all sorts of things missing from it; but that is even truer of, for example, Jane Austen's world. The addiction has arisen because I want to find out how life unfolds in this invented world, to see what happens next. To that degree, the thing succeeds.

The overwhelming impression, however, is the same one I get from practically any TV fiction I catch: This is girl stuff. When nothing much is happening in the show, which is rather often the case, it is because the women are talking, talking, talking, about how they feel, how you feel about how I feel, how we feel about how they feel, how she feels about how he feels about her feelings for him — talking the way a lady talks when a gentleman wants to go to sleep. I dimly recall that at the time the show was airing, some social conservatives denounced it as soft porn. Well, some of it is; but it is girlie soft porn. (When I argued this case to my friend, he said: "Watch the car wash episode and get back to me." That is episode 47, some way ahead yet.)

The real topic of the show seems in fact to be the problems arising from our modern conception of men and women as functionally equal — interchangeable — in ever-larger areas of life. The conclusion one comes away with from the first few episodes of Ally McBeal is that this isn't working out very well, rather especially for women. No less than six of those first twelve episodes involve sexual harassment in some aspect. I think the unsatisfactoriness of our current arrangements is relative — I mean, those arrangements, while unsatisfactory, are, on balance, much less so than those faced by Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, or Effi Briest, not to mention the women of traditional Islamdom or Imperial China. They are unsatisfactory none the less, and create much unhappiness.

Why is this so? Episode 12 of Ally McBeal, which I have just watched, gives us the answer. Whatever else we are, we are yet beasts, chittering chimps in suits and dresses. Men fight and make money; women talk and make babies. We can't escape it, we can't unhitch ourselves from biology, how desperately soever we desire to. We can rise above it, but not all the time, none of us.

No, this stuff is definitely not Euripides. Nobody will be discussing it 25 centuries from now. It seems, in fact, to have been pretty comprehensively forgotten already, except by my generous friend, and now me. For all its shallowness and absurdities, though, I'll give Ally McBeal an A grade for biological realism.