Ally McBeal is a TV show suspected of being watched by a mainly unsuspecting, mainly female group of people who are obsessed with themselves and who are mostly under the age of 40. Considering that almost everyone is obsessed with themselves to some extent, this is quite a large group. Intellectually one might not want to like the show, yet there's something about it that draws us in. Maybe it's the Dancing Baby1, or maybe it's the soundtrack. Whatever it is, much of the TV viewing public are gripped.
Written by David E Kelly, Michelle Pfeiffer's other half and the creator of LA Law, Ally McBeal has become a major topic of conversations on Thursday mornings2. Ally, of course, is the one you're supposed to relate to... she's misunderstood, wacky, emotionally very complex, unlucky in love, insecure... that's to say this is how she sees herself as she passes up on one eligible guy after another while mooning over her childhood sweetheart.
Then there's Billy - the childhood sweetheart who represents the unattainable dream-boy of whom you were cruelly robbed, but who nevertheless you have to see every day, and who appears to be living a perfect life with his perfect wife, who is probably the character you're supposed to aspire to since she's attractive, successful, fertile, relatively stable and in a loving relationship. However, you will never be like her, and although she does nothing wrong, you can't help disliking her. But you won't admit it. You also won't admit to the fact that the romantic in you secretly wants Billy to ditch his 'American Dream' lifestyle and run away with Ally. But that would, of course, be wrong.
Elaine is designed to be the character the audience most dislikes, perhaps because she gives women a bad name. She enjoys gossiping, she's promiscuous, untrustworthy, blonde, daft... but the deeper subtext actually suggests that she's the character most like Ally, and certainly the only one who comes anywhere close to her in terms of insecurity.
Renee is the sexually assertive high-risk anti-hero. She is likeable. You watch her with amusement while absorbing the moral message that women really aren't supposed to behave the way she does, and if they do they'll end up in trouble (ie, narrowly escaping prison) and will need rescuing, probably by a man. She just hasn't found the right one yet, but when she does, he'll tame her/break her will/beat her into submission and they'll live happily ever after. Only later we discover that she has met the right man - she has her own 'Billy' - but somehow he managed to marry the wrong woman (ie, not Renee).
Fish is the likeable rogue, a fairly typical male, attractive but not marryable, arrogant, loud, sleazy, Machiavellian but inherently 'good' and successful, with many friends. However please also note that this has been compensated for by pairing him off with Ling, the firm's 'most likely to sue' client.
John represents the guy that every woman knows. He is a friend who is incredibly intelligent and who is emotionally very 'needy'. He needs to be loved, but you can't love him back, no matter how much you want to. Because, despite the fact he's reliable, high-earning, well- meaning, brilliant, and the kind of person who thinks before he opens his mouth, he's also short, not too handsome, and most important of all, he is weird. You couldn't take him anywhere - you couldn't stand the embarrassment. So, he's destined to be the friend you always wish you could bring yourself to fancy. But you can't. Unless of course you're Nelle3, and for some reason want to bring a little imperfection into your life.
Has Ally McBeal single-handedly set the feminist movement back by 50 years? Maybe, but that doesn't mean it's not all harmless fun.