One of the earliest genres embraced by American television audiences is the legal drama. Such classics as ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘The Defenders’ served to establish what over time would become a strongly set format for telling a story on TV. Initially a show involving lawyers focused on the crime. It was more a mystery than anything else with the stalwart attorney searching for the truth. The main variation was whether the main character was the prosecutor or on the side of the defense. The shows built along these guidelines provided taut, gripping dramas and frequently these were the series that make it to the top ten in the all important ratings. The basic premise was concentrated in the courtroom with little if any part of the story focusing on the personal lives of the lawyers. The supporting characters such as clerk, secretaries and even junior partners were relegated to role only slightly more significant than the items supplied by the prop department. It may have taken a couple of decades but this most venerable of genres did undergo a series of major revisions. Popular series like ‘L.A. Law’ in the mid eighties drastically altered the course of legal dramas by moving the focus from the court room to the bedrooms of the litigants. Mystery and legal skill gave way to story lines that involved the personal lives and increasingly complicated personal lives of the cast of characters. The trend towards personalizing legal series hit a new height in 1997 when the Fox network premiered a completely new type of lawyer series; ‘Ally McBeal’. This series broke all the rules for the genre not only reinventing the law show but helping to change the way television shows are presented to the audience. Fans have been clamoring for a DVD release of the show and now they have something to cheer. Fox is releasing the first season set and for those that can’t wait for the typical annual season release, they are also offering a box set encompassing all five seasons. This is a marketing strategy that is extremely rare but much appreciated by the show’s loyal fans.
The series originated in the imaginative mind of a man well accustomed to association with hit television series; David E. Kelley. As a former lawyer hailing from Boston it is only natural that his most notable contributions to TV include that profession and location. Prior to striking out with his own creations Kelly worked extensively with another man who changed the face of the medium; Steven Bochco. Together they worked on ‘Doogie Howser, M.D.’ and ‘L.A. Law’. Kelly would continue on with his own list of hits touching on various genres including small towns (‘Picket Fences’), hospitals (‘Chicago Hope’), high school ("Boston Common’ and, of course the law (‘The Practice’ and ‘Boston Legal’. The one thing all of these shows have in common besides the obvious excellence in writing is the use of offbeat, quirky characters. These odd people add a distinctive Kelly flavor and no matter who eccentric the may get Kelly always manages to present them as real, fully developed human beings. While all of his series have these oddballs in attendance ‘Ally McBeal’ is without a doubt the show that gives ‘quirky’ free reign over the proceedings.
The titular protagonist is enthusiastically portrayed by Calista Flockhart. Her energy and fundamental knack for comic timing is perhaps one of the most significant factors that contributed to the critical acclaim and popularity of the series. She is just so perky you think it would get annoying but having seen her in more intense roles it is apparent that inherent skill is at work here. This observation holds true not only for the persistent core characters of this ensemble cast but pertains to all of the others who joined the cast during the run of the series. Over the course of time almost every relationship was afforded an opportunity to grow; waxing and waning as relationships are prone to do. There were a few that remained stable enough to build the emotion foundation on which provided continuity and realistic change. One that was developed right from the start was between Ally and her former childhood flame Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows). They were each other’s first love but parted in law school when he was offered an out of state career making position. It turns out he is a member of the firm Ally joins. The senior partner there is Richard Fish whose myopic view of the world centers on making piles of money through any means possible. The co-founder of the firm is John Cage (Peter MacNicol) who shares a love of money but is much more socially awkward than his partner. At home Ally could always unburden her mind and seek the advice of her best friend and roommate Renee Raddick (Lisa Nicole Carson). She is counter balanced at work by Ally’s assistant Elaine Vassal (Jane Krakowski) who is the reigning queen of gossip in the office and acts as sort of a Greek chorus for the audience efficiently filling us in on the back stories of various characters.
Kelly truly broke the mold of the court room series here; just about every element employed here deviated from what came before. The cases would typically parallel the current personal dilemma and source of angst afflicting Ally and her friends. Frequent the adversarial nature of the judicial system is used to present opposing viewpoint of a particular topic. This is brilliantly reinforced by the use of music in the series. The lyrics of the background music always pertain directly to what is going on. Some of the music is naturally inserted by having the characters gather after work at a piano bar/restaurant on the ground floor of the office building. This series launched the career of singer songwriter Vonda Shepard who was featured in most of these musical interludes. One of the main reasons the series has been absent from DVD for so long ere legal issues over the rights to the music. Rather than substitute other music Fox wisely waited until the original music could be included. Replacing music has been done with several other series usually with disastrous results in the DVD sales. the full series set also includes a crossover episode with ‘The Practice’ so revist the dancing baby and enjoy.
Posted 10/07/09 Posted 04/21/2018