This series of television nostalgia posts is becoming a great excuse for me to revisit so many old favourites and when thinking of the next one, Ally McBeal was the obvious choice. Created by David E. Kelley (creator of Chicago Hope and the superb legal drama The Practice) in 1997, Ally McBeal was an American series with a difference. Not quite a comedy, but not quite a drama either, it starred Calista Flockhart in the title role as a young neurotic lawyer in Boston, who joins a newly established firm Cage & Fish, run by an old law school classmate. It all looks to be the dream job until she discovers her childhood sweetheart and love of her life is working there too! The catch – he’s married now.
Over five seasons we tuned in to explore this surreal world, through the lives and loves of Cage & Fish’s eccentric employees, as well as the bizarre roster of cases that the firm handled. The show was unique at the time for being funny, dramatic, poignant and bonkers – sometimes all at once and some of its hallmarks have helped to make it a classic.
Most notable are the visual insights into Ally’s mind. As the story is predominantly seen from her viewpoint (especially in the early days), it made sense that the audience needed to see in to her slightly barmy mind. The series did this brilliantly through various digital effects including the computer generated dancing baby and people’s heads growing larger as they speak. We also had great “scenes” where we saw Ally imagining what she really wanted to do and who doesn’t remember the dump truck flashes when she about to dump someone or be dumped?! All of these quirks made the series stand out from the beginning. It was also sharply written, with each episode containing some wonderfully witty lines for most of the characters.
I know a lot of people couldn’t stand Ally, but even if she wasn’t your cup of tea, the great thing about the series was that there was sure to be someone you loved, as there were so many wonderfully imagined characters. It could be quiet, reserved John “The Biscuit” Cage (Peter MacNichol), whose courtroom tactics to throw off opponents and love of Barry White were a joy, or Ally’s assistant Elaine (Jane Krakowski), who was constantly stirring up gossip, but had a caring heart really. Then there was Ally’s flirty roommate Renne (Lisa Nicole Carson) and my favourite Richard Fish (the wonderful Greg Germann) – who never hid the fact he was simply in it for the money, but who actually was a great friend and had some of the best lines in the show. As the series progressed the cast grew to include others, particularly Ling (Lucy Liu) and Nelle (played by Portia De Rossi with her incredible hair). There was also Ally’s old flame Billy and his wife Georgia (Gil Bellows and Courtney Thorne-Smith). I never understood what Ally saw in Billy. He was just too irritating for me and seemed far better suited to Georgia than Ally. We also enjoyed many guest stars, some playing Ally’s boyfriends, most notably Robert Downey Jnr. as Larry Paul and Jon Bon Jovi as Victor. The calibre of actors the show attracted highlighted how good the series was.
Then there was the other element of the show – its soundtrack (which was released across four CDs), mainly provided by singer Vonda Shepard. The music was such a big part of the show, setting the tone and mood and via the wine bar below Cage & Fish, in which the gang ended up at the end of each episode, Vonda and other guest musicians and singers (most notably John Cage’s hero Barry White) could actually become part of the episode. So many songs still remind me of the show when I hear them.
Yes some of it was totally bonkers, but Ally McBeal was always fun to watch and remains quite unique. Its quirky plots and characters makes it one of my favourite shows and I often rewatch it. After much thought, here are my favourite episodes of this truly entertaining series.
Angels & Blimps (series 2)
A young boy with leukaemia wants to sue God and Ling agrees to help him in one of the more moving episodes of the series, guest starring Haley Joel Osment as the young boy. It’s an extremely touching episode and Lucy Lui is wonderful throughout. I’ve always liked this episode in particular, as it shows us a different side of Ling.
Blue Christmas (series 3)
Elaine finds a baby abandoned in a church manger and is so desperate to keep him she starts a custody battle. Seeing this side of Elaine is lovely as all the gang rally to support her. The humour is injected through Ally’s determination to prove she can be sexy by performing Santa Baby in the bar, which she does superbly to the shock of the guys in particular! Brilliant!
Boy Next Door (series 3)
A turning point for the series and Ally, this episode starts out comically with John stuck in an elevator, which Nelle sees as the perfect opportunity to break up with him! However things take a more serious and heartbreaking turn as Billy reveals the truth about his brain tumour, before later collapsing during his closing arguments. It’s a poignant moment as he talks of his marriage to Ally and their happy life, suggesting that his confused and deteriorating mind is imagining what deep down he always wanted. Calista Flockhart is wonderful in this epodes as we realise Ally’s life will never be quite the same again.
Car Wash (series 3)
The season three opener always sticks in my mind as it’s totally bonkers from the start. Ally enjoys a passionate encounter with a stranger at the car wash, only to discover he is the fiancé of a client for whom she has agreed to be a bridesmaid! Hilarity ensues as Ally agonises over whether to tell the client or not and the wedding scenes are typical Ally McBeal craziness!
The Getaway (series 4)
An episode set partly outside Chicago in sunny LA, with my two favourite characters on a holiday – Cage and Fish! Richard is tired of being sad so he and John embark on a holiday, which becomes one disaster after another, as John has to get Richard out of numerous legal misunderstandings. It’s such a fun episode and Peter MacNichol and Greg Germann have brilliant chemistry together. The scene where they use a fake baby to board the plane quicker before packing it in to the overhead locker is brilliant!
The Wedding (series 4)
A sweet finale to season four, which introduced me to the incredible singer Josh Groban who guest stars as Malcolm Wyatt, a young man who is suing a girl for not going to the prom with him, culminating in him taking Ally instead. It’s such a romantic episode, Calista looks gorgeous in her dress and hearing Josh sing You’re Still You is a series highlight for me.
Blowin’ In The Wind (series 5)
Ally’s hat blows to an abandoned wreck of a house and Ally being Ally sees it as a sign to buy it! She also meets and hires Victor (Jon Bon Jovi) as handyman to help fix it. Then there’s the other women seeking pleasure from a vibrating chair! What I love most about the episode though is Ally’s romantic vision of her having somewhere to call home and Richard’s lovely gesture of arranging for the gang to do the place up for her as a surprise, right down to buying her a coatrack for the hallway, just as she’s always wanted. I always thought it would be lovely to have friends who would do that for you.
What I’ll Never Do For Love Again (series 5)
A nice episode, focussing on characters other than Ally, especially Elaine and Richard. Always the exhibitionist, Elaine fulfils a dream by auditioning for A Chorus Line, something she receives encouragement to do from a surprising place – Nelle. This episode makes the list as Elaine’s audition scene always makes me smile. She really gives it everything and Nelle slipping in to watch shows how deep down she can be a caring person. Richard’s father also makes an appearance as he is being sued by his former secretary for sexual harassment. It’s interesting to see the two together, to give an insight in to Richard’s upbringing and personality.
Cro-Magnon (Series 1)
This is probably one of the most memorable episodes for viewers of the show as it includes Ally, Renee and Georgia attending an art class in which they sculpt a rather well endowed male model! Then Ally goes on a date with him! The episode also is the first to feature the iconic dancing baby and ends with Ally giving in to her imagination and dancing with it!
Bygones (series 5)
Although a little farfetched (although as this is Ally McBeal you grow to accept that!), I really enjoyed the series finale, as I think it brings closure to the series and the characters in a satisfying and heartfelt way. The reason for Ally’s sudden departure (Maddie’s nervous illness) seems unrealistic, but that aside, we see Richard marry Liza in a truly surreal ceremony and see Ally say a fond farewell to all the group, who had become a surrogate family, including Billy (well his ghost anyway). We then see her walk away to a new hopeful beginning. I for one hoped she would find all the happiness she always wanted.
Unlike other television nostalgia posts, it’s been too difficult to rank these episodes in any order. There are also a few others that almost made the grade, including Home Again, where Richard returns to LA and tries to represent his friend in court by having John telling him what to say through a microphone until they get cut off! I also love In Dreams about Ally’s old teacher who wishes to be put in to a coma as her dream world is happier than the real one, in which she is crippled. Then there’s the poignant series one episode Boy To The World, in which Ally represents and develops a close bond with a transvestite prostitute.
Yes Ally McBeal is eccentric and totally ridiculous, but it was always fun to watch, even when an episode was tinged with a more emotional tone. Crucially for me though, the characters were a group that I loved watching week after week and, despite their quirks, it was clear that there was a strong bond between them and you could do a lot worse than have a group of friends like them. They ultimately were there for one another when it mattered. Every so often only an episode of Ally McBeal will fit the bill and even now they still make me smile. Feel free to share your favourites in the comments box!
Oh and just to make you all smile, here’s a great You Tube video of some of the brilliant dancing moments (mainly in the unisex bathroom!), appropriately set to Barry White!