How I Got Hooked:
This show originally aired on Fox when I was in ninth or 10th grade. And, my friend Mandy was obsessed. I watched a lot of it (possibly all of it) because it felt adult and a little bit scandalous, and, well, Mandy seemed to know what she was talking about when it came to things that were adult and scandalous.
I liked it then, but I didn't totally get it. And, my understanding of it, as it turns out, was entirely wrong. I walked away from high school remembering McBeal as being ditzy and promiscuous and, ultimately, a woman who made professional women look bad. Not so. Out of curiosity, I re-watched the pilot a few years ago on Netflix. And, it was the best. I watched the whole thing through and through — well, right up until the end of season three, anyway. After Billy dyes his hair blond, things get weird, and it's painful to keep going. I know Robert Downey Jr. lies ahead, but I just can't push through.
Ally McBeal is a real feminist. She leaves her big-firm job because her boss sexually harasses her, and she's unwilling to turn the other cheek in the way the partners expect her to, in the face of some convoluted litigation. So, she walks away and joins a smaller (much quirkier) firm. And, so begins Ally McBeal, setting the stage to fight for the underdog and take on some of the more taboo conversations around sex, relationships, equality in the workplace, and more.
But, perhaps even more important than those overt moments of standing up to sexism and bullying (Rickie from My So-Called Life turns up as a transgendered teen in a particularly poignant episode addressing homophobia and violence) are those in which McBeal carves out a niche for herself. She's looking for love and struggling with heartbreak from the past. She's often emotional in a way that's slightly over the top but still accessible. She's a little bit odd, with a rich fantasy life. And, she's comfortable embracing all of those things and presenting to the world a whole person who represents that along with a Harvard degree and legal acumen. Which makes her feel real. And, relatable. And, like a woman who doesn't feel that you have to behave like a man to get ahead. And, also, like a slightly glamorized mirror of the smaller struggles and triumphs so many women face in their late 20s and early 30s.
But, here's the sad part: Before I started watching this show afresh, most of what I remembered was press around Calista Flockhart's weight and McBeal's rising hemlines. And, at least partially informed by that, the adjectives I really took away from my initial encounter with her character were probably "floozy" and "slutty." I don't really use words like that to describe women today, but even if that weren't the case, I'm very clear on the fact that they wouldn't apply to McBeal. As it turns out, on the spectrum of sexual experimentation, our heroine is pretty conservative — in fact, she's looking for fairy-tale romance in a way that occasionally borders on cloying. And, yet, because the show dealt with sex, I assumed McBeal somehow deserved our judgment for it. (I'll be the first to admit that it trades on shock value and sexualizes its characters, both male and female, in a very typically Hollywood way, but at the end of the day, I still maintain that it does more good than harm.) I was probably not the only teen in the '90s with that takeaway, but I'm pretty sure that attitude was precisely what Ally McBeal was trying to fight. It just took me 15 years to realize it.