Bringing Ally to Life

Most women are crazy about Calista Flockhart--they just don't know it yet. For the time being, it's Flockhart's TV alter ego, Ally McBeal who's getting all the press (though that may change with Flockhart's recent Golden Globe nomination for best actres in a TV series). Barely into its first season, Ally McBeal has already touched women's hearts and grated men's nerves the way Hope once did on Thirtysomething. Ally's effect on audiences has been so intense that publications such as The New Republic and The New York Times have run essays on her, and Time has asked the question: "Ally McBeal: Confused and loveable? Or a simpering drag?" How about annoyingly real? After all, the reason Ally has provoked such fervent discussions is that her contradictory, sometimes kooky behavior reflects what most women often think, but are afraid to say. Her inner thoughts are conveyed through fantasy sequences, voice-overs and special effects. (When Ally is turned off because a handsome first date dribbles some salad dressing on his chin, she sees buckets of Russian dressing oozing down his face every time she looks at him. Sound familiar?)
Sure it does. Which is why it's surprising to learn that Ally McBeal is completely written by a man. David E. Kelley, creator of Emmy award-winning Chicago Hope and Picket Fences, has such an uncanny ability to get inside a woman's head that he must be popping estrogen pills before sitting down at the keyboard. Kelley's clever dialogue goes to the heart of contemporary issues such as gender bias at work, ual harassment, office romances and urban loneliness with refreshingly un-P.C. candor. He has Ally's ex-boyfriend (played by Gil Bellows) explain the difference between the genders: "This makes men stupid," he says, pointing to his pants. "This makes women stupid," he says, pointing to his heart.
While the words may be Kelley's, the soul of Ally comes straight from Flockhart. Her limp blond locks and the ultra-pouty lips give her a vulnerability many have compared to that of Kelley's wife, Michelle Pfeiffer. When Ally advises an overweight attorney to marry a woman whom he isn't in love with (because neither Ally nor her friends would ever date such a heavy man), she manages to come off as genuinely concerned for his future, not as a coldhearted bi*ch. Co-executive producer Jeffrey Kramer knew finding the right actor for pulling off the edgy dialogue was key to the show's success. He had heard about Flockhart, an Illinois native and Rutgers University graduate who was making a name for herself on the New York stage in productions of The Glass Menagerie and The Three Sisters, but word came back that she wasn't interested in doing TV. After auditioning hundreds of women, Kramer finally insisted they try "the lady with the name," as he called her. Perhaps the glamour of living on a $400 a week and two cans of ravioli a day was wearing thin. After reading the script, Flockhart moved to LA. Flockhart said the scene that broke her no-TV rule was the one where Ally's ex-boyfriend tells her she's married. "She says, 'How wonderful,' and then asks, 'Do you have kids?' If he's just married, that's one thing," explains Flockhart. "But if he has kids, then it would really be over. That touched me."
Okay, so Ally's thoughts on relationships aren't exactly progressive. "If women wanted to change society, we could do it," she tells her roommate Renée, who's bemoaning the role of women. "I plan to change it. But I'd just like to get married first." The words of a role model? Hardly. Let's leave the debate over Ally's impact on the women's movement to the critics and allow ourselves a rare guilty : watching a TV woman we can relate to--flaws and all. "I actually like the quest," Ally says during a soul-searching moment. "The more lost you are, the more you have to look forward to. What do you know, I'm having a great time and I don't even know it." So are we.

- Laura Morice