1. SHE CAN TURN THE WORLD ON WITH HER SMILE -- BUT ONLY WHEN SHE FEELS LIKE ITAlly isn't out to mother everybody in the office. Her favorite expression is the turned-down frown.
2. IT'S UNPREDICTABLE.Just when you thought you'd seen every stale formula there is, here comes a show that mutates from moment to moment.
3. BATHROOM HUMOR YOU CAN ROOT FOR.The law firm's unisex rest room is where everyone goes to spill secrets -- which are forever getting overheard by colleagues hiding in the stalls.
4. FISHISMS: THE ULTIMATE CULT OF THE '90s?Ally's hilariously morally malleable boss is forever spouting wise thoughts in proverbs he calls Fishisms. The classic one is "bygones," which is what Fish says to dismiss any emotion he considers no longer profitable.
5. THERE'S MUSIC IN HER SOUL.Ally gets an inspired theme song, "Searchin' My Soul," by folky rocker Vonda Shepard, who, unlike a lot of folks in Hollywood, still has a soul to locate. Shepard's down-but-not-downhearted tunes, which she often performs in the show's nightclub scenes.
6. A LITTLE FANTASY GOES A LONG WAY.The show gives us play-by-play commentary on Ally's emotions, via voice-over monologues, flashbacks, and hit-and-run fantasies. But the flashback scenes don't linger forever, as they did on Sisters, for instance. The fantasy bits and internal monologues are snappy, too, never weighing down the pace of the drama. They're almost subliminal, which is how things should be.
7. THE LOVE TRIANGLE RINGS OUR CHIMES.Usually, when TV stages a romantic rivalry, it's about as subtle as the catfight in Clare Boothe Luce's The Women. But Ally McBeal shows the way it really works. Naturally, Ally and Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith), the lawyer who married Billy, want to hate each other's guts. "You were hoping she was fat and stupid and maybe missing a couple of teeth," says Billy, and Ally admits it. Yet when Georgia and Ally prepare a big case together, they bond -- until Billy walks by, and his glance reveals that some Ally-Billy intimacy survives. A chill fills the air. You used to have to go to the movies to find such emotional nuances.
8. FOUND: THE REAL LORDS OF THE DANCE.Most men, on Ally McBeal and in life, are from Mars. The dancing twins (Steve and Eric Cohen), who turn up in the nightclub scenes, are down-to-earth.
9. IT TACKLES THEMES THAT GET WOMEN DOWN WITHOUT PUTTING THEM DOWN.In a touching guest role, Kate Jackson captures the anger of a TV anchor cast off because not enough viewers in Internet chat rooms want to see her naked. Dyan Cannon plays a judge who permits a man not her date to smooch her on the sly, sadly explaining, "Twenty years ago I would've slapped his face -- because it happened all the time." Courtney Thorne-Smith has a poignant line you would never hear on Melrose Place: "I'm afraid of growing out of what my husband fell in love with."
10. IT'S IN THE KISS.Ally McBeal is to the study of romance what Seinfeld is to the study of neurosis; she can still feel the soft sizzle of her first kiss, and every one thereafter. While Ally dances with a hot date, her voice-over tells the inside story: "The first dance is critical. I never start off close -- it gives me no place to go. A dance is basically foreplay...." Even just walking is foreplay, Ally recognizes: "Not that I invited anything -- I kept my body language stiff, hands behind my back.... I only smiled medium...."