My first hint that the Fox TV show Ally McBeal might be a hit came in email from a professor at Vassar. She was incorporating tapes of the show into her post-feminist studies seminar, she said, and wanted to know what I thought about the program and whether I knew of any Web sites or mailing lists devoted to it. There were, I told her, only about a thousand.
Ally McBeal and the handful of other really provocative shows on TV are not produced or aired by the timid, old-fart big three. And they all strike a nerve, one way or the other.
Lots of people cherished I Love Lucy when it was aired nearly a half-century ago, and even those who didn't watch it probably would have found it unobjectionable. But The Simpsons, the late Beavis and Butthead, The X-Files, and South Park, on the other hand, are unsparingly revealing of our times, feisty and controversial, vulgar, sexy or profane, seen by some as bellwethers of the culture, sometimes as portents of its decay.
All of these shows, plus another off-beat hit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, are products of struggling cable networks or fledgling broadcast networks that have no choice but to innovate, while the fossilized three seem to think they can't afford to.
Hence, my fifth axiom of American media: A medium is creative when it is being born or when it's dying. Otherwise, market research rules.
Ally McBeal is a particularly interesting example, not only because it is the culture craze du jour - it has suddenly appeared on half the magazine covers in America - but because it speaks so directly to the lives, politics, and values of one of the most interesting groups in our culture: young women still sorting out their relatively recent invasion into traditional male work bastions, like law.
These are, in fact, great days for post-feminist studies. Remember that in media, as in politics, women are still in the midst of a peaceful but nonetheless revolutionary upheaval, by which men are much affected but largely onlookers.
There used to be one kind of female role model on TV, and it ranged from Lucy Ricardo to June Cleaver. Now, our female role models are spectacularly diverse, reflecting the complex reality of women's lives. They run the gamut from Scully to Buffy to Marge Simpson - and now, Ally.
At least half the reason for The X-Files spectacular success is Dana Scully, a brainy, strong, rationalist woman able to work side by side with an attractive man without sexual entanglements - almost a first in the history of television.
Ally McBeal, on the other hand, is the anti-Scully. If Scully is the Geek Queen, then McBeal is the Princess of the Insecure. Like Scully, she's smart and well-educated - but she can't go three seconds without mooning over or wondering if she'll nab a man. She routinely experiences humiliation at the hands of men, becomes unhinged while confronting men, and all while trying laboriously to work collegially with men.
According to its dream demographics, Ally McBeal is the place where advertisers most want to be: It's frequented by women - especially young women - who either identify with the title character's bizarre inner life or get ticked off by it. Some shows are watched because people love them; others because people hate them. Happily for its producers, Ally McBeal draws both.
The controversy, if you want to call it that, centers on McBeal's profound, sometimes unprofessional narcissism and nearly terminal preciousness. She seems perpetually shocked, victimized, embarrassed, regretful, depressed, or confused. Even when she does something tough - she once deliberately tripped an obnoxious woman in the supermarket - she seems stunned and bewildered by herself. In her thigh-baring skirts, she wallows in existential angst, constantly pining for love and confronting inner demons, including one of the show's most original stars, our very own, Web-raised dancing baby.
Although she talks about being in love with her ex-boyfriend, you get the feeling the relationship isn't possible, because the person she loves above all others is herself
Between, she stumbles almost incidentally through her career as a Harvard-trained lawyer in a dysfunctional Boston firm, working for odd or dumb men.
It's perfectly understandable that her passivity and neuroses would set serious-minded working women, many of whom still fight hard to be taken seriously, on edge.
"It does get to me that this Harvard-educated lawyer prances around in that short skirt mooning over her ex-boyfriend all day," messaged Alice, herself a lawyer who works hard to win the respect of her colleagues. "I go crazy. I want to shout, 'Just get to work, you idiot!' But I watch. Because women do feel those things."
My own sense is that there are class differences involved in women's perceptions of this show. The better-educated and more professional the viewer, the greater the wariness, even resentment. The lower down the socio-economic ladder, the greater the identification. One secretary on a McBeal listserv posted her empathy with McBeal's character: "That's what I feel like every day. I have work, but I want love! And I'm terrified I'm never going to get it!"
The problem for McBeal haters is that the show is, at times, a riot, outrageously weird and shockingly unlike most of the pablum on the major networks. The lawyers in her firm gossip, tidy up, and eliminate in a unisex bathroom, for example, where everybody is equally uncomfortable, and where insecure and fastidious men obsess on the size of their organs and use hand-held, remote control flushers to flush before they enter the stall.
For its inventiveness, good writing, and loopiness alone, Ally McBeal deserves its success, although it could do with a bit less self-referential whining. Most important, McBeal needs to pull herself together a bit if the show aspires to more than trendy cuteness. Scully is one of the great creations of contemporary television, mostly because she takes her feminism and competence for granted. When we see her human side, it is genuinely moving.
But we see too much of McBeal's human side. As funny and dotty as McBeal is, she seems to represent a step backward. Alice was right: McBeal can be as weird as she wants at home or with her pals. All of that can be laughed at, forgiven, or overlooked, providing she pulls herself together when she goes into court and earns our respect as the lawyer she's trained and paid to be.
In recent episodes, McBeal does, in fact, seem to be getting more focused. She actually won a difficult case recently through articulate cross-examination and an eloquent closing, even though her boss warned her not to react if she saw any imaginary babies prancing through the courtroom.
Ally McBeal is a rebuke to the dull, plodding creations churned out by the market researchers at CBS, NBC, and ABC. Like The Simpsons, The X-Files, or South Park, this is another hit show that would never have slipped past a network focus group.
The success of Ally McBeal is also a thump on the head for journalism, a reminder that women are still going through enormous social upheaval and want to see, read, and hear programs and stories that reflect the complexity of their own lives.