If polarizing opinion actually turns out to be good for television ratings, then the Fox network can go ahead and renew Ally McBeal right now. It's been years since I've seen a TV character that aroused such strong emotions in the audience — you love Ally, or you hate her, and there doesn't seem to be any middle ground at all.

Much is made of the implausible situation in which Ally, a recent graduate of Harvard Law, finds herself. She's working for a man she disliked intensely as a student, and working with one she loved — and who has since married someone else, who also works for the firm. What's more, Ally's roommate is a district attorney, which assures they'll be on opposite sides of cases from time to time. But this is just the setup; it's really no different from, say, the stipulation in any Star Trek derivative that warp speed actually works. And, as Johnny Carson used to say, you buy the premise, you buy the bit. So far, I'm buying the bit.

Ally, we hear from some critics, is not an especially good role model for girls, since she's highly emotional, given to sudden outbursts of ill-considered speech, bewildered by life itself, and yearning for True Love. Quite apart from the question of whether one should get role models from television in the first place, I find this criticism unpersuasive. Some women — and yes, some men — are actually like that. Not everyone can be Clint Eastwood as directed by Sergio Leone. Is Ally a threat to feminist ideals? Only if you believe those ideals demand that women, to achieve full equality, must minimize behavioral differences between the sexes, or, in other words, become as much like men as possible. I wouldn't have thought they thought male behavior was the default, or that it was so worthy of emulation.

What's more, Ally whines, or so say her detractors. Well, maybe. Certainly she has a gift for sounding mournful for no obvious reason. Still, I have to wonder if a like charge would be made against a male character who was given essentially the same plot lines and dialogue.

I think, though, that what makes Ally stand out is that sometimes you really do want to throttle her; there's no effort to make her look like the victim of other people's prejudices and perversities. Most of the trouble she gets into, she causes herself, and her ability to rationalize it is downright uncanny. Perhaps it's that flash of reality as we know it that makes people uncomfortable with the character; we'd prefer our heroes and heroines to have as few flaws as possible. Ally is flawed, almost to the point of being pathological; to me, she's very real indeed — well, except for that little matter of hemlines. Surely no downtown Boston lawyer is actually wearing skirts that short. I hasten to add that this is not the reason I watch the show. Really.

The Vent

1 December 1997

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 Copyright © 1997 by Charles G. Hill