SINGLE women are, as a group, highly sensitive to media portrayals of themselves, and not without good reason: They are routinely maligned and condescended to, depicted as everything from sexually frustrated, ice-cream-scarfing shopaholics to murderous obsessive psychopaths.

Rarely does a movie, TV show or book get beyond their essential aloneness to portray single women as anything more than desperately in need of love.

From the day it premiered last fall, members of the single female population-as well as the viewing public at large-displayed very few neutral feelings about the Fox series (MD+BO)'Ally McBeal.''(MD-BO)

Those who loved the show identified so highly with its title character - an ambitious, slightly goofy, unmarried Boston lawyer who lands a job at the same firm as the former love of her life, now married to another woman - that many declared that they were Ally McBeal. They organized weekly viewing parties, invited over all the other women they knew who thought they were Ally, and rejoiced in the arrival of a show that spoke directly to them. They were amazed that a man could create such a dead-on female character.

Others didn't see it that way at all, accused the show of being frivolous, and said the Ally character as represented a huge step backward for womankind. She was self-obsessed and unsympathetic in the extreme, they charged. And she had zero real-world credibility. How could this woman demand to be taken seriously when she pranced about in impossibly short skirts, lost her composure at the slightest provocation, and got googly-eyed whenever her ex was in the room?

I liked Ally McBeal. It depicted the life of a professional single woman with an honesty and humor missing since the demise of another flawed-but-worthy single-girl show,(MD+BO) 'The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.'' (MD-BO)It is somehow considered bad politics to have female characters reveal a desire to find a partner, as though simply expressing this is admitting to some terminal weakness, and I respected the fact that Ally was open about her fears of ending up alone.

Every single woman knows there are moments when one fears her life is becoming a cliche, and Ally effectively explored the peculiar self-loathing inherent in those moments. Likewise, actress Calista Flockhart knew how to handle these scenes with the right degree of subtlety.

The show was at its most winning when Ally did battle with her worst impulses, and the bad side won out. Like for example, on an early episode when she tripped a woman in the grocery store after they got into an argument over the last can of Pringles. Her reaction wasn't defensible, it was clearly way out of proportion to situation, but it was also highly recognizable.

Ally received its biggest shot of PR after the 1997-98 TV season, when Time magazine put Flockhart's face on its cover with those of feminists Gloria Steinem and Susan B. Anthony, and warned that to young women today, Ally might very well represent the future of feminism. The story inside took a great deal of late-90s pop culture (Spice Girls, Bridget Jones' Diary) to task for helping create a shallow, vain generation who felt no political obligation to their gender and cared only about makeup and boys, but Ally got slammed hardest of all.

When I think of everything that's gone wrong with Ally this season, I trace it back to two main catalysts: media coverage of Calista Flockhart's weight loss, and the Time story, because these are the factors that caused Kelly and his star to flip into a super-defensive mode that has oozed from real life onto the show itself. Kelly has not made himself very available to answer the show's critics in person, but has instead employed Ally's character as a mouthpiece through which to address various criticisms.

Most every episode this season has contained a less-than-coy reference to the show's notoriety (for example, the dream sequence in which Ally is accosted by a woman who says that as a role model Ally must gain weight and wear more modest clothes, and Ally replies, 'But I don't want to be a role model!'') But none of these references actually explain anything. 'I read what you're writing,'' Kelly seemed to be saying to critics, 'and I don't care!''

As far Flockhart's weight loss goes, it must be noted that there is a kind of vampire-like glee with which women sink their fangs into a woman - particularly a famous, attractive one-who is too skinny. They attack with a nastiness that would never be acceptable if directed at a woman who chronically overate, and if it is true that Flockhart has some kind of eating disorder - and there is no denying that she has remained alarmingly thin this season - then she deserves empathy, professional help and some privacy.

Having said that, however, it must also be pointed out that part of what has gone wrong with Ally this season is that - no doubt owing in large part to these accusations - Flockhart has emerged as sulky, petulant, and distinctly unlikable. We expect the celebrities whose shows we love and whose careers we boost to seem at least not displeased with the fame and wealth we're at least partially responsible for providing. Last year at the Golden Globes, when she won in the Best Performance by an actress in a TV series category, Flockhart was one of the most refreshing sights of the telecast, giddily losing her way as she tried to direct herself to the podium. This year, however, as the entire cast took the stage after Ally won for best TV comedy series, Flockhart glowered and projected an adolescent boredom, all but checking her watch as the rest of the cast enjoyed their moment.

As Flockhart has become harder to like, so too has her character and by extension the show. Ally has gone from being a subtly drawn character, lovable but challenging, to a someone we don't necessarily root for or even care about. Who blamed her most recent flame, a dreamy doctor, for going AWOL when Ally told him she kissed Billy, her ex?

It's enough to make one wonder how much affection Kelly even has for this character. He has said that he based Ally on all the women he dated before marrying his wife, which is perhaps a more revealing statement than he realizes. It means that in Kelly's mind, Ally's worst fears about ending up alone are true, and that she is, in fact, destined for the close-but-not-quite-Michelle-Pfeiffer bin.

There are other complaints as well, like the fact that there is entirely too much cutesy shtick involving pet frogs and finger sucking. And there is a certain pointlessness to the two new female lawyer characters, played by Portia deRossi and Lucy Liu. While Liu, as the princessy lawyer Ling Woo, is frequently hilarious, her presence on the show seems rather pointless and sometimes borderline racist (Liu, who is Asian, growls-like a Dragon Lady, get it?-when she's angry.) De Rossi's function, as far as I can tell, seems to be to flip her gorgeous hair around.

Mostly, Kelly seems to have taken the worst aspects of the show and amplified them, and in turn diminished the best ones. Take the now near-nonexistent character of Elaine (Jane Krakowski) who plays Ally's assistant. Elaine was the kind of character that Kelly at his best is capable of producing, a cartoonishly oversexed woman, terminally meddlesome, who invents face bras and wears them around the office until people are forced to comment, but who is revealed, over time, to be a rather sad, deeply needy soul.

Watching Elaine and Ally's antipathy turn into something resembling friendship was as meaningful as this kind of TV gets. So was the unfolding of the friendship between Ally and Billy's wife Georgia. But to pull that type of thing off, Ally must show vulnerability again, and this is something neither Kelly nor Flockhart seems to be in any hurry to do.