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Ally McBeal

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First aired: The Signal: Season 6, Episode 7
Ally McBeal tells the story of Cage, Fish and Associates, the oddest law firm you're ever likely to encounter. It's also the story of it's newest recruit, Ally McBeal, a neurotic but lovable power-dresser who hallucinates dancing babies. The show is a mixture of comedy and drama in equal measure, and on occasion the funny develops into full-on lunacy. Shows don't come much more surreal than this.
Written by Jill Arroway
Read by Anna Snyder
Edited by Jill Arroway

Can you say quirky? Can you say oddball? Can you say off-the-wall? About Ally McBeal, you can say all of these things, and more. Ally McBeal is a show full of whimsy and heart in equal measure. It's inventive, and at times it's downright loopy. It's Alice in Wonderland, in a Boston law firm. Ally McBeal tells the story of Cage, Fish and Associates, the oddest law firm you're ever likely to encounter. It's also the story of it's newest recruit, Ally McBeal, a neurotic but lovable power-dresser who hallucinates dancing babies. The show is a mixture of comedy and drama in equal measure, and on occasion the funny develops into full-on lunacy. Shows don't come much more surreal than this.

OK, so what's it all about? Well, Cage, Fish and Associates are a law firm situated in Boston, USA, who appear to specialize in cases that are just downright silly. There's the man who whacks happy people on the head; the man who wants to swap hearts with his boss; the gospel singer who sings about nuclear bombs; the store that sacks Santa for being too fat. Fact is, if you have a crazy, nonsensical, outlandish law suit to bring, or to defend against, without doubt, Cage and Fish are the firm you want to be hiring.

At the heart of it all, is Ally McBeal herself. Painfully honest, Ally is a brilliant lawyer, but her primary desire is to be not single. Unfortunately, what Ally plans and what takes place ain't ever exactly similar.

She's a victim of her own choices. She wants everything, and that's not always possible. Ally is strong on the outside - sometimes - but childlike and vulnerable on the inside.

But what makes this show really special is that Ally has an "inner life" which we are shown in all its glory, manifesting on occasion in full-blown hallucinations. Ally McBeal was one of the first shows to incorporate CGI into live acting, and so when Ally feels out of her depth, we see her swimming through the office; when she feels small, we see her shrink. Eyes boing out of their sockets, and tongues drop to the floor, and sometimes, Ally has a hard time telling what's hallucination and what's real.

...which brings her into contact with a variety of therapists, most of whom seem to be as crazy as Ally.

So far, I've only talked about Ally, but Ally McBeal is an ensemble show, and every single one of the various regular characters has their own quirks and foibles. In particular, the firm's two senior partners, John Cage and Richard Fish, are at times the very definition of eccentric. John Cage - nicknamed "the biscuit" - is a funny little man who keeps frogs, plays bagpipes, has a remote control toilet flusher and a whistling nose. Yet for all his foibles, the courtroom is his home turf: inside the courtroom, he wins. His tactics border on genius. If you should ever find yourself in court for any reason, John Cage is the man you'd want as your lawyer.

Peter MacNicol, who plays John Cage, later went on to star in Numb3rs, where he acts alongside Mister Universe.

The other senior partner is Richard Fish. Richard started the firm with four main aims: money, money, fun, and money. His primary ambition in life is to make piles and piles of money. He's turned on by older women, and has a fetish for wattle - the fleshy fold of skin that hangs from the neck or throat of older people. His knowledge of the law is near-zero and his legal arguments are ridiculous, but he makes up for it in bygones and Fishisms.

Greg Germann, who plays Richard Fish, these days shows up in Eureka.

No discussion of Ally McBeal would be complete without discussion of the unisex bathroom. Instead of the little boys' room and the little girls' room, there's just one room for everyone. It's the hub of office gossip, and the center of much humor. There is something absolutely delightful about this, because it is absolutely the most bizarre setting for so much ludicrousness, including John practicing his dismount (some sort of acrobatics), and the famous Barry White dance.

Ally McBeal ran from 1997 to 2002, and it caused more than a few ripples in the society of the day. It wasn't well received by the feminist movement of the time. Time magazine ran a cover story asking "Is Feminism Dead?", juxtaposing Ally McBeal with three feminists of the time, and sparked a debate which continued throughout the show's airing, and beyond, in the media puppet theater of the day. To hell with them! I love it! The issue, I think, is that Ally herself is a very non-traditional character, and hardly a role model. She was someone who wanted to have a career and find a man and have a family, and was very anxious about the prospect of not achieving that. She was also someone who was constantly insecure, narcissistically obsessed, slightly snobbish, and never really happy. She was not, in other words, someone you'd actually want to be. She was possibly the first example of a flawed character as the star of a mainstream TV show. Ally showed reality, not as it should be, but as it is. It's educational to do a quick Google search for phrases involving "Ally McBeal" and "feminism" to see what all the fuss was about. Nowadays, we can enjoy it for what it is: awesomely funny.

We could also talk about the series' portrayal of the law itself. Everything I know about American law, I learned from Ally McBeal, so perhaps my view of the American legal system is a little skewed. And yet - perhaps not. In these days of the internet, I've been able to converse with friends around the world, and many of the details which so amazed me actually turned out to be true: affirmative action; legal ages for various things, and the notion that justice in America is all about having a better lawyer than your opponent - that's all real. It's very educational for those of us living outside the states.

But all that stuff is just background; the foreground moments of the show are the lives of the characters, and the people they touch - and everyone the world of Cage and Fish has touched so many people. A variety of famous names have appeared in the show. Appearances include Tracey Ullman, Sting, Bon Jovi, Barry White, Tina Turner, Al Green, Josh Groban, Barry Manilow, Robert Downey Junior and Dame Edna Everage.

For all of its faults, for all of its surreal, off-kilter moments, Cage and Fish is, above all, the center of life for our created family. It is home; it is somewhere to be proud of.

Music plays a massively important role in Ally McBeal. In fact, the show is not far off being a musical. The characters don't burst into song - most of the time - but every night the gang retires to the Martini Bar, where Vonda Shepard sings and the dancing twins dance. Music also enters the show in the form of Ally's hallucinations, and there's even a musical episode - although it must be said, the show really doesn't need it. Some of the musical gags are pure brilliance, but alas, I cannot play you clips because there is also a visual component which would be missing in this audio podcast. However, I found some YouTube clips. They are just hilarious, so please do check them out.

Ally McBeal ran for five seasons, and all of them are available on DVD. I would certainly argue that the middle three seasons are the best, with the first and last seasons bookending them. I will also say that the grand finale season-ender at the end of season five was one of the best series-enders on television. This matters. The current trend of shows ending each season on a cliffhanger and then getting canceled appalls me. Ally McBeal got closure, and without giving away any spoilers, it was one hell of a tearjerker.

I have watched the whole grand slam right the way through more times than I can count. There is so much about this series that I can recommend: the pelican crossing scene, the "Spank me" song, dancing in the unisex, Ally's theme song, the music of Vonda Shepard, and of course, the dancing baby and Ooga Chukka. If you've never seen it, check it out. The verdict is in. Let the record show that Ally McBeal rocks!

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