First there was "Seinfeld."
Then came "Friends."
Now we have "Ally McBeal." She is portrayed weekly on
the Fox Network as an attorney whose behavior is as grotesque as
her physical habits. (No offense to the actress directed to play
her that way.) Given that the title character is at best infantile,
at worst mentally unstable, some questions about the purpose of
such a show - a runaway commercial success - are in order.
The image of young - and not so young - adults who cannot find
their place in the adult world has been with us for some time. Three
of the four characters in "Seinfeld" had no discernible
purpose in life, except to find sexual partners, though carefully
avoiding any appearance of procreation as a collateral intent.
Ah, but what gifts came to be on display! Not four, but five participants
with significant reserves of talent, counting Larry David, the spiritus
rector. And no one could have applied stronger doses of criticism
to the characters than Jerry Seinfeld, playing himself. Moreover,
under the cover of "a show about nothing," the greatest
taboos of the 1960's legacy were subjected to scrutiny, if not outright
Who could forget Jerry's commentary on speech codes when he tried
to date a girl of Indian ancestry. Who could have failed to notice
the wafer-thin dimensions of Elaine's political creed every time
it got in the way of her fun. Has anyone other than Kramer dared
to take on the AIDS ribbon fetish?
And what about their brave parody of the final "I could have
done so much more" scene in "Schindler's List" which,
in Steven Spielberg's epic film, threatened to place in doubt the
authenticity of the title character? For sure, once "Seinfeld"
hit its stride, the half hour rarely passed without food for thought.
None of that seriousness-of-purpose-conveyed-as-humor ever touched
"Friends." NBC's highly-rated show offers a trio of male
and a trio of female characters permanently imprisoned in adolescence,
making the cast of "Melrose Place" appear like mature
citizens of consequence.
But the six "Friends" make no pretense of playing any
role in society that would affect others, except perhaps the few
who pass through their unenviable lives.
Not so with Ally McBeal.
Ally and Co., you see, go into court to represent clients who have
business to be settled there. Conventional thinking holds that courts
are serious places, and that people who have business before them
find themselves in serious situations. Petulant attorneys, singing
juries, the length of counsel's miniskirt do not fill that category.
For background, we might remember that the courthouse has been
placed at the center of most American towns, replacing the European
model of having the church in that position. To this day, as one
drives across Virginia for example, signs at the entrance to certain
communities announce the presence of a courthouse. To this day,
the only courts of law truly deserving of the label are confined
mostly to the English-speaking world. Elsewhere the law, if any,
was simply changed too many times.
From "Sam Benedict" to "L.A. Law," the court
room drama on American television has reflected the central role
in society of the peculiarly American way of reconciling recurring
human conflict with the permanence of the law. Issues of particular
concern to society in a given moment were afforded more and more
space on the small screen in preference to "who dunnit"
entertainment, such as "Perry Mason."
Many cases, and their treatment, induced thought in the viewer,
even when served up in the form of comedy, as was the case in "Nightcourt."
But "Ally" is not comedy. It is...what on Earth is it?
Is the proposition now that a person given to delusions and living
in a state of permanent confusion can "flick a switch"
and suddenly function as a serious professional? Are we to believe
that people in trouble would entrust their fate to the likes of
Ally McBeal? As tempting as it might be to pass the show off as
"entertainment of little import," we ought not. In a society
where "the woman's role" is the subject of ongoing political
agitation, shows of this type carry a message.
Is the world of Ally McBeal a reflection of how the real world
has become, or how - in the opinion of the show's creators - the
real world ought to be?
Is Ms. McBeal the proud result of women's rise in the professions,
or the worst nightmare of feminists as she represents everything
that argues against women in the professions?
Or is the message simply that America is becoming a collection
of silly people?
Would that executives and other key personnel at Fox Network just
once had their contracts written and their cases, if any, brought
to court by an Ally McBeal.
Would that Hollywood recaptured the magic touch it used to have
right up to the mid-1960's whereby it walked the fine line between
entertainment and content.
If not, would that the industry took the late Samuel Goldwyn's
advice: "If I want to send a message, I call Western Union."