Frankly, watching Calista Flockhart drink a cup of cappuccino isn't quite the steamy erotic spectacle you'd expect. There are no blissful sighs. No orgasmic head rolls. No soft-focus close-ups of creamy foam clinging to her pouty, voluptuous lips.
"I do love cappuccino," the actress offers demurely. "But I'm not that much like my character."
Flockhart's character, of course, is the hapless heroine of Ally McBeal, Fox's quirky new, Golden Globe-winning series about a young Bean Town attorney who works alongside her still-interested ex-boyfriend (and his wary new wife), wears leggy minis to court, suffers from a fantastically vivid inner life, and--in one memorable episode--demonstrates a coffee-sipping style so sexy it'd knock Juan Valdez off his donkey. Created by David E. Kelley (the frighteningly prolific writer-producer who's also behind The Practice and Chicago Hope), it's got everything a hip '90s-style one-hour comedy-drama should: sharp, off-kilter dialogue, a talented ensemble cast, and button-pushing story lines hot off the cultural zeitgeist. So what's not to love?
Apparently, a lot. In fact, not since thirtysomething has a series so divided the nation, with half the viewers enthralled, half aghast. To Ally acolytes, Kelley has crafted a witty spin on the tired woman's-show formula (think a younger, smarter, and much thinner Molly Dodd). They adore its wacky fantasy sequences (especially that dancing baby), its loopy sexual kinks (one character actually has a wattle fetish), and the twisty webs of romantic confusions that keep Ally in a perpetual state of adorable abashment.
To the anti-Allys, though, all of the above is all but unbearable--not to mention pretentious, overly precious, even sexist. They were particularly offended by that suggestive cappuccino scene, in which Ally and a female coworker (ex-Melrose Place resident Courtney Thorne-Smith) turned their morning pick-me-ups into caffeinated foreplay ("See that foam on the plastic? Lick it off...."). They think the very idea of the coed bathroom at Ally's too-cutesy law office is, well, full of crap. They sniff at Ally's painfully self-absorbed insecurities and vulnerabilities ("The world's whiniest TV heroine," crabbed the L.A. Times). And, boy, do they ever want to shoot the show's piano player (see sidebar on page 24).
All this discord, it turns out, hasn't hurt Ally in the least--especially since both the love-its and hate-its seem to be watching in ever-growing numbers. Last week's episode pulled the biggest ratings yet--14.3 million--trouncing The WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seriously challenging the Big Three competition, even besting its lead-in, the once mighty Melrose. And with the end of Monday Night Football, more and more men are tuning in--5.8 million last week--although it's unclear whether they're drawn more by the mannered tailoring of Kelley's Emmy-winning writing or by Ally's incredible shrinking hemline.
The point is, the show is becoming a hit. And that makes the question all the more imperative: Which is it? A groundbreaking postfeminist television anthem for the New Woman of the '90s? Or a giant leap back for all womankind? Even a judge as wily and seasoned as Ally's Whipper (that's Dyan Cannon under those black robes) might have trouble with this one. But maybe the following will help the court of public opinion render a decision.
McBEAL V. THE REAL WORLD (Or does she have the legs to stand on?)
"I embrace everything about Ally," Flockhart says. "Maybe it's because I'm playing the part, but I don't particularly see her as a whiner. One week she's tough, the next she's really weak. I love that. She's human."
It's a drizzly January morning in L.A., and Flockhart, 32, is perched at a patio table outside a coffee joint on Sunset Boulevard. Four months ago, she was a veritable unknown outside New York theater circles (she played Natalya in Three Sisters on Broadway) whose closest brush with Hollywood was a small part in The Birdcage and a couple of high-profile screen tests (she was up for Courtney Love's role in The People vs. Larry Flynt and Cameron Diaz's in My Best Friend's Wedding). Today, she's the subject of nationwide watercooler discussions, the center of the most talked-about show of the season--and, as of last week, the recipient of a shiny new Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy series. She's also become something of a sex symbol, that rarest of all TV anomalies: a brainy babe. Some fans have even suggested a resemblance to Kelley's movie-star wife, Michelle Pfeiffer ("I always feel like I should call up Michelle and apologize when I hear that," Flockhart says).
These are not public roles the "psychotically private" actress seems all that eager to play, which may be why she sounds like she's living in oblivion these days. "You know, it's like I'm in a glass tube when I go home from work," she says of her new life. "I go home and take an hour to walk the dog and chill out. Then I pick up a script and memorize my lines for the next day. Then I get up early and do it all over again." She takes a sip of cappuccino. "I guess I have a pretty myopic point of view right now."
Here's another point of view, from some of the show's toughest critics. Ironically, the Ally backlash seems to be strongest among professional women in their 20s and 30s--women, in fact, a lot like Ally herself (which, by the way, is also precisely the demographic the series is aimed at). "Those short skirts really annoy me," says 30-year-old lawyer Joanne Watters. "Even in New York, I never see women in court wearing skirts like that. Also, she isn't all that professional. She's not confident or aggressive. She seems like she's always waiting for her knight in shining armor. I wouldn't hire her for my attorney." Agrees Susan Carroll, a 32-year-old New York lawyer: "They're always turning her into a sexpot, like in that cappuccino scene. It's all about her appearance and her social life. It's pretty sexist."
Flockhart ponders a moment before responding. "Look," she says, "just because Ally happens to be a woman, all of a sudden she's expected to be this politically correct role model. But this is an individual character--she isn't intended to represent all women. The show isn't saying that all women lawyers are neurotic or vulnerable or wear short skirts. That's just the text Ally is dealing with.
"Somebody once asked me about one of my lines on the show: 'I want to change the world; I just want to get married first.' She was like, 'How could you say that?' But it's true. I'd like to change the world, but I'd also like to get married and have babies," she says. "Being loved is a basic human need. Who wants to be alone?"
KELLEY V. N.O.W. (Or is our 15 minutes up yet?)
There is no such thing as a slow day for David Kelley. The 41-year-old law student-turned-TV auteur (he created Picket Fences and wrote for L.A. Law) has pretty much taken over Hollywood's Ren-Mar Studios complex, with The Practice filming on one soundstage and Ally on another. He also consults on Chicago Hope at a lot across town and has just penned his third feature, a hockey flick called Mystery Alaska.
Still, the producer--who, amazingly, has written every Ally episode so far--agreed to schedule 15 minutes for an interview in his office (time, one assumes, in which Kelley could have knocked out three scripts). "When I finished the Ally pilot and delivered it to Fox, I thought, Dig in for the protests," he says from behind his paper-strewn desk. "I was braced for criticism: How dare you create an intelligent woman with a successful law career and depict her with this void because she's emotionally starved without a man in her life. I even wrote a line that has Ally saying she should be picketed by the National Organization for Women. But it's a romantic comedy," he insists, "so more often than not her quest is going to be for romantic fulfillment."
What Fox had asked for was a Monday-night drama that would draw the same sort of audience that the slipping Melrose Place used to attract--those affluent 18- to 34-year-old females. But what Kelley delivered was actually much more subversive: a series that sneakily explores male preoccupations (one typical episode delved into the eternal question, Does Size Matter?) by filtering them through a female protagonist's perspective. In other words, a guy show dressed up in chick-show clothing.
Big shock that it's turned out to be so controversial.
"David is being very cagey about it," says Greg Germann, who plays Fish, Ally's charmingly sharky, wattle-loving boss. "But it's definitely a male point of view. There's been about three different times when he's written about justifying prostitution."
Kelley pleads guilty as charged--and he's hardly repentant. "I cringe when people ask me how I write women characters," he says, visibly cringing. "The truth is, I just write them the same way I write men. I don't distinguish." And he has taken some of the criticism to heart. "If we've made any alterations, it's that Ally is slightly more optimistic," he says. "If the audience keeps thinking she's whiny, at some point they aren't going to tolerate it."
As it happens, Kelley originally wanted Bridget Fonda to do the whining, but discussions "didn't go anywhere." So instead he auditioned dozens of other young Ally-esque actresses. "We saw everybody," he groans. "I mean, casting went on forever." But still no luck, until, about a week before shooting was supposed to start, Calista--whose name, in Greek, means "most beautiful"--fluttered into his office straight off the plane from New York. "She just was Ally," he says.
Flockhart remembers the day a bit differently. "I didn't feel particularly great about my audition," she says, sounding very Ally-ish. "Afterward, one of the producers was walking me across the street and he asked, 'Why are you so bummed out?' I told him, and he said, 'Well, cheer up, you got the part.' I just stopped, and the first thing to come out of my mouth was, 'Oh, great. Now I've got to move.'"
FANTASY V. REALITY (Or bring on the dancing babies)
If this article were an Ally McBeal script, right about now there'd be a cutaway to a fantasy sequence in which Ally's deepest fears or desires spring surreally to life. For instance, in this particular scene we might have, oh, say, Ally fall passionately in love with a lonely, desperate magazine writer who whisks her off to some sultry, deserted island in the South Pacific. Okay, so maybe that wouldn't be her fantasy, but you get the idea.
In almost every episode, Ally's inner feelings are cartoonishly telegraphed, much like Martin Tupper's vintage TV daydreams on Dream On. Ally wonders what it'd be like to have big breasts, so Kelley's F/X wizards blow her bust up into Vegas novelty-act proportions. Ally's heart is broken, so arrows shoot into her chest. She hears her biological clock ticking, and suddenly she's imagining a freaky infant cha-chaing to "Hooked on a Feeling" (for more on the now-famous digitized baby, see page 73).
Says Kelley of the gimmick: "All my series have really been about words--all those closing arguments on L.A. Law and The Practice--so a part of me just wanted to do something purely visual."
Like everything else on Ally, it makes you either giggle or gag.
A BRIEF BATHROOM BREAK
The cast and crew are shooting a scene on the bar set, where the characters usually wind up for drinks at the end of every episode. In this segment, Fish has spotted Janet Reno sipping a cocktail and can't resist sidling up to the attorney general to cop a feel of her tantalizing wattle. It's a cute scene, with a killer look-alike (the real Reno declined Kelley's invitation for a cameo--go figure). But there is another, even more compelling set calling for attention on the soundstage. A few dozen footsteps away, empty and unlit for now, looms the heart and soul of Ally McBeal: the unisex bathroom.
One of the most controversial elements of the show, the coed toilets are where some of Ally's greatest dramas unfold. "It's like the kitchen in most people's houses at parties," offers Gil Bellows, who plays Billy, the now-married old flame who works with Ally--and whom she's still sort of crazy about. "It's the place where the characters get together. So you have these incredibly moving scenes taking place next to a urinal." Dyan Cannon also sees dramatic possibilities. "There's no place safe at that office. There's no privacy anywhere. You can get in a lot of trouble in that bathroom."
Still, some cast members admit the idea grosses them out. "I couldn't do it," says Courtney Thorne-Smith, who plays Billy's wife--and whom Ally sort-of-likes-but-also-sort-of-hates. "If it were real, I'd constantly be running across the street to the convenience store's bathroom."
FINAL SUMMATIONS (At least for this week)
Only 13 original episodes of Ally have aired to date, and judging by the ballooning ratings (so good they've chased Buffy to Tuesday and persuaded Fox to sign the series for a full second season) and its sweep at the Golden Globes (where it beat perennial faves Frasier, Friends, Mad About You, and the soon-to-depart Seinfeld), it's a pretty sure bet the Ally arguments will rage for some time. Just remember how many years the Michael-and-Elliot debate tore at the national psyche.
"It's inevitable," says thirtysomething cocreator Marshall Herskovitz, who hasn't actually seen Ally but speaks from deep experience. "Any time a show tries to be about real life, you're going to offend some people who feel that it doesn't resemble their lives enough and others who think it resembles their lives too much. But in an odd way, that's a compliment. It means the work is alive, that it's stirring up people."
Back at the coffee shop on Sunset, Flockhart offers a similar take. "I love that the show is controversial, that it's thought provoking," she says. "I love that people either love it or hate it. It's more interesting."
She takes another sip--and a tiny bubble of cappuccino foam finally makes an appearance on her upper lip.
'I cringe when people ask me how I write women characters,' says Kelley. 'I just write them the same way I write men.'