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 ridicule.
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."