Legal Ladies

by Rachel Rafelman

In their own unique way, the women Ally McBeal are refreshingly realistic role models

At a key point in one episode of Ally McBeal, Billy, Ally's former flame and current law partner, says to her, "I can't figure you out. On the one hand you reject the world of absolutes. On the other you live by them." This sums up several of the female characters on this hit show: They are studies in contradiction And therein lies the essence of their appeal. Unlike so many other series, peopled by stock characters Who embody only one personality trait, on Ally mcBeal everyone is a surprise package. The female cast is comprimised of "part" people who, together, make up one whole female, and for this reason you cannot completely experience them in isolation. This is perhaps why the show's detractors frequently complain that the characters are "unrealistic." But to the show's fans, these women are emotionally real. We "get" what they're about because we're about the same things, and that makes Ally McBeal a uniquely satisfying TV experience.



Let's get this out of the way - Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) is much too thin. But it doesn't matter. You know why! Because she is also too impulsive, too high-strung and way too neurotic She does more pratfalls than Chevy Chase, has a tendency to put her foot in her mouth, although she is nothing if not ecumenical (she's inadvertently insulted a rabbi, a Methodist minister and a nun) and can't seem to get through a date without being completely sabotaged by her own hyperactive imagination (she envisions unicorns and Rollerblading babies, among other things). This character could only be skinny. Despite the brouhaha that has been made in the media about her alleged eating disorder, you have to admit that all her various quirky personality traits kind of go together. Which doesn't mean Allly is consistent; far from it. She is a mass of contradictions - measured and impulsive; stylish and slovenly: generous and pretty; juvenile and wise.

Speaking for all female viewers, we want her wardrobe, and her legs ...but not her hair. We might also, from time to time, covet her shoes which double as lethal weapons when she chucks them across a room, usually beaning John Cage (Peter MacNicol) in the process. Ally's skirts look like wide belts. She knows this and doesn't care. Whenever she gets depressed she raises her hemlines, presumably along with her spirits. She wears sleepwear with little lambies on it, an elfish knit cap and a scarf so long we know she'll trip on it one day soon. Viewers never get to see this, but she probably wears 100% white cotton underwear from Marks & Spencers. Nelle (Portia de Rossi) is strictly Frederick's of Hollywood. Ally's tragedy is that she's had one true Love, Billy (Gil Bellows). Now, Billy is for Ally what Ashley Wilkes was for Scarlett O~Hara - a fantasy man who should have stayed that way. Billy is married to Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith), who is exactly the woman he should be married to. He's not for Ally, a fact that is well known to the viewers but not yet to Ally herself. Until she realizes this, she is doomed to hanker after the wrong guys. And hanker she does. All it takes is for one gorgeous guy to walk into the shot with her to make that imaginary, red, six-foot-long, computer-animated, tongue rapidly unfurl and slurp his face. (It's not a pretty sight.)

Ally irritates a lot of viewers. They say she's twitchy, silly, infantile, lacking in dignity, even an insult to other women. They're entitled to their opinion. To me, she is courageous, kind-hearted and intelligent. She isn't a walking icebox in a power suit, like so many of the other professional women on TV. She wears her heart and soul on the sleeve of her Donna Karan ensemble, even when she's in court, she takes responsiblity for her own actions and struggles with her own self-destructiVe impulses. Oh yes...and she also has trouble dealing with happiness, and admits it. That alone should make us love her.


Georgia - successful, happily married (to Ally's former sweetheart), beautiful, self-assured and mature - is Ally McMeal's most stable character. She is also, probably for that very reason, the least interesting. Unlike the others, Georgia maintains self-control at all times, which makes her much less fun to watch. Even her moments of high emotion are contained and only expressed later, behind closed doors - much to Elaine's (Jane Krahowski) everlasting chagrin, and, come to think of it, everyone else's too. This, after all, is a firm that does not believe in closed doors, even in the unisex washroom, which is the busy hub of all office enterprise. However, Georgia's discretion is often foiled by the kind of personal intrusion, which is almost office poiicy in this firm. For example, when Georgia retreats to the "unisex" to consult her do-it-yourself pregnancy test, you know that privacy would be easier obtained on the main floor of the nearest department store, on Boxing Day!

Georgia's a bit kittenish, which may be an unfortunate side effect of Thorne-Smith's stint on Melrose Place. Even when she indulges in the tiny turf wars over her husband, she can't muster up much more than a mildly catty "mew." Georgia has her good points, though. Her finest: moment was when she agreed to help Ally to ward off a particularly obnoxious and persistent suitor by participating in a long, very convincing clinch in his presence.

Georgia wears twinsets, spike heels and pearls, which are meant to emphasize her femininity. She looks great in it all. But of all the women in the firm, she has the hardest time with Nelle's arrival. As she confesses to Billy, "I've always been the fairest one of all.

Unlike Ally, she never trips or falls, and unlike Elaine, she never shoots her mouth off. Other women are not threatened by her the way they are by Nelle. Georgia is always the same. But who knows what the future holds? Maybe one day Georgia will break out of her white bread wrapper, trade in her cashmere twinset for a spandex tube top and really let lose. Let's hope so.


Nelle is the one we all long to be. She is every woman's basic nightmare - blond, leggy, chic, poised and really really smart. Nobody could dismiss or disparage Nelle with any conviction, even if they tried. And God knows Ally, Georgia and Elaine, who hate her on sight have tried. But they have a hard time finding justification.

Take Nelle's improbably gorgeous, long, platinum hair. It is provocative enough to be a character in its own right. During business hours, Nelle's magnificent mane is severely scraped back and restrained in a variety of buns, chignons, and braids (to no ill effect on her beautifully proportioned face...yet another reason for her female co-workers to be wary her). At night, with a single flick of the wrist, she sends her crowning glory cascading down in dramatic waves around her shoulders. What countless female viewers want to know is who does her hair? A team of structural engineers with tonsorial training? How is it that such heavy and incredibly lustrous (if obviously bottle-blond) locks can stay atop her head with nary a stray strand, and yet be rapidly released with one simple gesture? Sorry if I seem to be belaboring this point, but it seems to represent the perplexing perfection that is the essence of Nelle. Every successful show needs a central mystery.

Nelle also has a dream wardrobe to complement her dream hair, which she displays to stunning effect on her dream body. And - another Ally McBeal preoccupation - she has a vast array of matching accessories for each outfit. When does such a successful, stylish and impeccably groomed litigation lawyer find time to hunt down items like the silvery blue satin bag that perfectly complements her silvery blue designer dress? Maybe her friend and sometimes client Ling (Lucy Liu) - who thinks Shopping is the only true happiness a woman can ever know - picks them up for her.

Nelle, of course, is what she seems. In court she goes for the jugular, and she can hold her own with the litigious Ling, but is helpless at the sight of a tiny frog. And she has surprising emotional complexity. For truely inexplicable reasons, she falls for John Cage, a schlemiel with an underdeveloped body and overdeveloped neuroses. He sees through her tough exterior... maybe that's what she likes about him. After she relates a poignant account of her tragic childhood love for Millie her pet hamster, he remarks, "You're a kind person Nelle." Her anxious resonse is, "You won't tell, will you?"


Elaine is an outlandish, interfering, needy, sex-obsessed yenta who thrives on personal drama and is not averse to provoking it at the most inopportune times. Nonetheless, she is the show's most lovable character. In addition to her penchant for gossip and office intrigue, Elaine is funny, vulnerable, and despite her many disappointments, dependably cheerful. "Oh happy is easy," she tells John, another of the show's solitary characters. "You act happy. People see you as happy. You see yourself through their eyes. You feel happy. In a heartstring-tugging aside, she adds, "But it doesn't work for lonely."

Plump, big-haired, flamboyantly dressed and lascivious, Elaine hurls herself shamelessly at men, who most often hurl her back. A would-be inventor, she also has no qualms about appearing ridiculous in one or another of her preposterous contraptions - her padded "pregnancy dress" with its own built-in water supply.

Elaine says exactly what she thinks...which is exactly what everyone is thinking as well: but can't express. This is brave, and unhypocritical as well as being a great service to the others. But it also ensures that she will always be dismissed and devalued. She is her own worst enemy, but she is also the (sometimes toxic) glue that holds this cracked company of people together. "Wait," she says to Fish's (Greg Germann) erstwhile paramour, who Elaine intuits is about to provoke a scene, "Not everybody's here. Can I just go get Ally?"

Whether protecting ,Ally from the nerd onslaughts, or sympathetically supporting John Cage's benighted attempts at seduction, Elaine is always a friend-in-need. Female viewers of Ally McBeal do not want to be Elaine. But that's because in some less overt sense, we already are her.


Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson), Ally's no-nonsense deputy district attorney roommate, is the perfect foil for Ally's jittery, obsesive indecisivness. Renee is easily the best-grounded character on the show. A tad sardonic and worldly-wise, Renee knows all about the imagined hijinks that lurk in the hearts of men. Very little surprises her, which is probably why she never loses her cool (except when she drop-kicked her overly aggresive date, who pressed charges).

At home, in their comfy designer flat, Ally and Renee sit around in baggy pyjamas, drinking red wine and commiserating. Both women are beautiful and professionally successful. They both want marriage and kids. They are both single and nearly 30. They are ideal girlfriends - they can be both completely nonest with each other and supportive, at the same time. Renee, however, is not without her competitive feelings, and has attempted on more than one occasion to steal Ally's thunder, though she is suitable contrite and apologetic later.

A bit on the "zaftig" side, Renee is completely comfortable with her own body. Her breasts, which are to Renee's character what Ally's legs are to her, are so prominent on the show they are almost characters in their own right. However, Renee is able to treat men as sex objects, though none of them, so far, has complained.

Although she's a romantic at heart, and becomes illadvisedly involved with her now-married high school sweetheart (even Ally warned her not to!), she's always scoping out her next amour, an activity which generally concludes successfully. Fortunately, she has an enormous smile to match her equally out-sized libido.