Miércoles 5 de Junio de 2002, Ip nº 16

TV's romance with 'Ally McBeal' comes to an end
LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- Unlucky-in-love Ally McBeal has botched the last and most important relationship of her life: the one with television viewers.

Enough already, the audience seemed to chorus as ratings for Fox's 5-year-old series slipped despite newcomers including Jon Bon Jovi and Christina Ricci.

Enough neuroses, said one former fan, Suzanne Smith: "Ally wasn't just quirky anymore. She was unpleasant."

Enough rampant male chauvinism, said another, Charla Delgado: "The portrayal of the workplace bothered me."

Once hot, now cold, "Ally McBeal" airs its final episode 9 p.m. EDT Monday. But the show -- which had the power to provoke a Time magazine cover story asking "Is Feminism Dead?" -- remains influential despite its decline.

It's the style, however, and not the substance of "Ally McBeal" that resonates. Witty fantasy sequences, an ear for music and innovative cinematography are part of the legacy of creator David E. Kelley's Emmy-winning series.

When it comes to the depiction of contemporary women -- which made "Ally McBeal" the watercooler darling, or villain, of its heyday -- the medium already has moved on.

Played by Calista Flockhart, Ally was a 30-ish Boston lawyer obsessed more with mating than her professional accomplishments. In 1998, Time called her a symbol of feminism turned vapid and part of "a popular culture insistent on offering images of grown single women as frazzled, self-absorbed girls."

Don't look for her TV progeny, said Bonnie J. Dow, author of "Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women's Movement Since 1970" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).

"We have more shows built around powerful female lead characters than we've had in years. ... We have competent women who are not as emotionally (flawed) as Ally is," said Dow, a University of Georgia associate professor in speech communication.

She ticks off examples: "Providence," "Judging Amy," "Crossing Jordan" and "Philly" (the last, a legal drama starring Kim Delaney, canceled this week by ABC).

Ratings dip

While "Judging Amy" can be found among the top 20 prime-time programs, "Ally McBeal" lingers closer to No. 60. It has dropped from a 1998-99 high of 17 million weekly viewers to 9.4 million for the season to date.

In 1997, the series and its then unknown star, Flockhart, were welcomed as fresh, offbeat newcomers. Ally's tiny skirts and oversize neediness were marvels, as was Kelley's unorthodox take on the war of the sexes and hot-button issues such as workplace equality and marital infidelity.

The emphasis on music was a draw, with Elton John, Al Green, Sting, Barry White, Tina Turner, Barry Manilow and Gladys Knight among the pop stars who appeared. Vonda Shepard was resident muse, the pianist-singer at the lounge frequented by Ally and her circle.

Also intriguing were the fantasy vignettes, now a TV staple on shows as varied as the NBC sitcom "Scrubs" and HBO's drama "Six Feet Under." As Ally's thoughts played out on-screen, we saw a dancing baby -- a taunt about her then childless state -- and encounters with absent boyfriends, one dead (Gil Bellows), and another who deserted her (Robert Downey Jr.).

That was part of the show's original blend of comedy and drama; in 1999, it became the first hourlong program to win an Emmy as best comedy series.

Writing by personality

The prolific Kelley, who had a hand in virtually every script for "Ally McBeal" (as is the case for his other series, "The Practice" and "Boston Public"), said in a 1997 interview that he wrote by personality, not gender.

"I try to incorporate some things that may be more germane to women than men in drawing women characters," he said. "But, for the most part, the dirty little secret is that I fail to distinguish them.

"The flaws or the strengths that I look for in drawing male characters, I do the same things for female characters."

But it was Ally, not her equally needy, neurotic male law partners, who drew attention -- inevitably, Dow argues, because she was the rare female lead character on TV. There is a 30-year tradition, beginning with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," of making such shows a barometer of women's progress, Dow said.

She's glad to see the Fox series depart. It "trivializes what the agenda is for women at the turn of the 21st century," Dow said.

But she does give "Ally McBeal" credit for contributing to social discourse: Those who used the show to disparage feminism started a backlash among supporters eager to defend its gains and goals.

The series deserves kudos on other grounds, said Tom Denove, a veteran cinematographer and adjunct professor at the film school of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Denove, who worked on two episodes of the series, credits colleague Billy Dixon with an unorthodox approach to filming that relied on telephoto-type lenses, even for close-ups. It gave "Ally McBeal" a distinctive, intimate look.

"You're so focused on the person and almost looking right into their soul," Denove said. "It's very personal. It doesn't look like a TV show at all in that respect alone."

And while others may have tired of the series, for Denove it's once in love with "Ally," always in love with "Ally."

"I hate to see it go," he said.

  20/05/2002. CNN.