`Stand up and say it loud: I hate Ally McBeal and I'm proud'
In the sea of junk which passes for TV light entertainment, there are few programmes which cause real rancour among the viewing public. Desensitised by wall-to-wall blandness across channels which look increasingly the same, we submit to the bludgeoning effects of the same shows showing over and over and over again. It's not a pleasant process - when you find yourself tolerating David Schwimmer, you know it's time to perform some emergency surgery on your critical faculties. These days, only a few faces really cause this writer to leap for the remote control before he loses his dinner (Changing Rooms's Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen springs to mind).
Ally McBeal is different. No other programme on television at the moment divides opinion so bitterly as David E. Kelley's comedy-drama-musical-whatever series.
It's not just a chick-guy thing, although there is a major division along gender lines in the show's fan base. But, on the basis of an unscientific straw poll, I can safely say that a substantial portion of the viewing public of both sexes finds Calista Flockhart and her band of merry attorneys the most annoying thing on TV. So stand up and say it loud: I hate Ally McBeal and I'm proud.
Much of the critical attention devoted to AMcB has focused on its diminutive, stickinsect star, and what she means as a post-feminist icon, a sort of American Bridget Jones without the fags, choccies and booze (it's no coincidence that Flockhart clone Renee Zellwegger is due to play Jones in the movie version of Helen Fielding's bestseller).
Ally is indeed a revolting creation, a self-obsessed, narcissistic little munchkin with the self-knowledge of a potato. But, awful as she is, just to focus on Flockhart would be to do a disservice to the rogues' gallery of equally annoying characters which make up the rest of the cast. Perhaps Kelley, who has built his career on legal dramas such as LA Law and The Practice, is making a subversive point here: everyone hates lawyers, and AMcB just shows us why we're right. The money-grabbing, amoral, tunnel-visioned, over-paid wasters who populate the series fulfil every worst stereotype of the legal profession.
No such luck, though. AMcB is far from subversive - in fact, it's one of the most conservative shows in the conservative world of American mainstream television. Defenders try to argue that the show is groundbreaking, even radical, in its breaking of the conventions of naturalist drama - Ally-haters just don't understand the show's complex weave of fantasy, comedy, drama and music, they say. Well, balderdash to that. There's nothing radical or complex about the twee, self-indulgent sludge which passes for plot in AMcB: the heavily signposted twists, the mind-numbingly repetitive motifs and the banal fantasy sequences.
And the music . . . The dribblingly coy score is bad enough, with its relentless overegging of every emotional pudding. It's like reading a novel in which every sentence ends in an exclamation mark. Even worse are the much-vaunted "musical interludes", which plunder the archives for great songs to ruin on a weekly basis. The relationship between Ally McBeal and the Great American Songbook resembles that between a dog and a lamppost. Vonda Shepard's pasteurised versions of American classic pop tunes would be bad enough in a hotel lobby; in a TV show they provide the final, smug touch to a programme which revels in its own smugness.
Personally, I find life is too short to spend much time watching a bunch of lawyers making calf eyes at each other to the backing of a few eviscerated Motown tunes. But Ally McBeal has performed one small service: I know for a fact that I never, ever want to work in a place that has a designer unisex toilet.