You have to be choking
Ally McBeal - Channel 4, Wednesday
The Berlin Of Agnes Bernelle - RTE 1, Wednesday
Secret History - Channel 4, Monday
Short Cuts - Network 2, Wednesday
Diana: The Secrets Behind The Crash - ITV, Wednesday
With the assonance of its name matched only by the asininity of the rest of it, Ally McBeal exudes a kind of obscene fluffiness. I was on holidays when it began some time ago on Network 2 but there was no avoiding its full horror this week on Channel 4. Opening with a schmaltzy reminiscence of Ally's first kiss, it rapidly descended into a touchy-feely-fest of post-feminist fantasies. Watching it feels like being molested by an army of marauding, pink, cuddly toys.
"So here I am - the victim of my own choices," says Ally after explaining to us about that first, pre-pubescent kiss and how she has come to be a Harvard-educated lawyer. Poor Ally! Life sure is a bitch and she is a tragic victim. Five minutes into this mush and it's loathsome. The fact that it has won Golden Globe awards for Best Comedy and Best Actress (Calista Flockhart in the title role) suggests that American television (and American society) is in even bigger trouble than most of us realised.
The cloying fluffiness is a great pity because there could be a series underneath the floss. Career-minded women in power suits, looking for big bucks (in every sense of the phrase) are a cheap way of dragging sex into a series. With Ally, we get a kind of ultra-soft porn as she struts about in her mini-skirts fantasising about her victimhood. Early on we see her sighing into a mirror about her small breasts and wishing they were bigger. So, Ally's mammaries balloon before our eyes until her bra snaps.
This Walter Mitty/Billy Liar device of reproducing Ally's thoughts visually is occasionally funny. More often, however, it's so syrupy that it just intensifies the waves of nausea the series seems determined to produce. When cuddly-wuddly Ally-Wally feels insecure about meeting clients, we see her shrink to doll-size, her legs dangling, Lolita-like, over the edge of a huge chair. Ally's McBeal's legs are so prominently featured that they have a kind of stand-alone role - that is, when they aren't dangling.
The plot, such as it is, sees Ally reunited in a Boston law firm with her ex-boyfriend Billy, who is now married to a blonde mannequin named Georgia. Ally still "has feelings" for Billy as Billy does for Ally. All those soft, cloying Lsounds: Ally, Billy, McBeal, feelings, love, leave you feeling like you've been force-fed furry marshmallows. This is Barbara Cartland country strained through Love Story, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and thirtysomething. Ally's wide mouth, Bambi eyes and skimpy skirts add the soft porn.
Then there's the law. Listen to this for guff: "Love and law are the same - romantic in concept but the actual practice can give you a yeast infection." Are these clowns serious? Romantic law? Do people find traffic violation cases erotic? Or, can company taxation law produce multiple orgasm? How about conveyancing? Walk on the wild side, no doubt! Pass the book of evidence and do it to me one more time, baby! Such nonsense is pure propaganda and archly conservative in its message: Perry Mason for the Hello! generation.
In this opening episode Ally, Billy and Richard (the boyish, smartass, senior partner of the firm) win a sexual harassment case against an old sleazeball lawyer, who has fondled Ally's buttocks. Very romantic in concept, isn't it? And then there's Georgia. Snooping to get the dirt on Ally's past with Billy, Georgia calls to our heroine's apartment. They whisper tenderly how they "hate" each other before we hear how Billy and Ally used to keep a long-distance phone line open all night so that he could hear her breathing in her sleep. Please!
Look, it's all like that. Smart Alec Ally yearned her way through this first episode of Barbies and Kens to a soundtrack of whingeing, women-as-victims ballads. It really is quite grotesque and for all its feminist posturing, only a male mind could have dreamt up such a creature as Ally. Written and produced by David Kelley (also responsible for Chicago Hope and The Practice), it is the most smug, syrupy and saccharine prime-time series in memory.
There are sub-plots about sexism and old-boyism within American law and about the hypocrisies of office relationships. These are legitimate. But they are smothered under the love triangle and Ally's appalling, girly-wirly self-indulgence. It can hardly do much for women's self-confidence in tackling the chauvinism of the legal profession. After all, Ally spends so much time in romantic (well, she finds it romantic) daydreaming and emotional turmoil - much of which takes place in the law firm's unisex jacks - that surely this is a setback for women. Flash and fluffy, it should be flushed back down the unisex loo it from which it has escaped.
Agnes Bernelle is neither flash nor fluffy and her prewar, Berlin-style cabaret is a dying art now. There is, of course, a certain self-indulgence in the Bohemian life but the decadence of 1930s Berlin does not choke on its own smugness.
There was serious satire and pointed parody amid the arty frivolity characteristic of the period. I Was The Little Girl - The Berlin Of Agnes Bernelle evoked a world destroyed by the hatred and violence of the second World War. Mind you, at 100 minutes in length, it probably lasted longer than the third World War will. Really, this was a chance for Ms Bernelle to do a concert on location, talking straight to camera between songs. Part authored documentary, part travel, history and politics, it was centrally concerned with the music of the time. Its main self-indulgence was in its lack of editing. It should, in truth, have been crisper and tighter.
Still, narrating sections of the documentary by using lyrics written by her father (Rudolph Bernauer, a theatre-owner, director and song-writer), Ms Bernelle displayed an engaging intimacy with at least a part of Berlin's celebrated cultural life. Between songs, she reminisced anecdotally about being flashed at in a public park, where she also used to see such non-flashing luminaries as Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. There was too, not unexpectedly, much about the Nazis.
Ms Bernelle, whose father was a Hungarian Jew, once saw Hitler in close-up as he was driven through Berlin's streets. "He had reddish hair - not black at all - with bright blue eyes and a very good complexion," she said. It made him sound like a male version of Lucille Ball. It was only after seeing him in the flesh that Agnes could understand his "magnetic, physical attraction". The big story, after that, is, of course, history. More specifically, for Ms Bernelle's family, the Nazi regime meant that they had to flee to London.
In England, Agnes became a radio propagandist - "Vicky with the Three Kisses" - broadcasting in German. As she described it, she appears to have been a cross between Ally McBeal and Lord Haw Haw. Anyway, against file footage of the burning Reichstag and Nazis burning books, Agnes belted out the old songs, many of them still remembered by Berliners. Berlin cabaret, she insisted, was not about "striptease, feathers and sequins" but was "literary, political and satirical".
This was a sentimental journey with music, against a backdrop of big history which changed the world. Individual histories of extended Bernelle family members, who joined the German army or were murdered by the Nazis, personalised the story. Agnes Bernelle's style of cabaret is not the chicken-in-a-basket in a provincial hotel effort. But, while some of her songs remain vibrant and poignantly evocative of a world about to be destroyed, others now seem flaccid and twee. Still, the appearance of the late Thom McGinty in one scene reminded us of a decadent Dublin that is also gone forever.
A WORLD which many of us had believed was gone forever but which has been revved up again was the subject of Secret History: The Chair. This was a chilling documentary - luridly keen on reconstructions - about the invention of the electric chair as a method of execution in the United States. As told here, the tale was not so much about finding a more humane way to kill people as about feuding capitalists engaged in a public relations war.
Thomas Edison's direct current (dc) electricity was being superseded by George Westinghouse's alternating current (ac) version. So Edison, consulted on making a death chair, strove to forge a link between high-voltage ac and death. Back in the 1880s and 1890s, electricity still had an aura of mystery and magic. The public was as scared as it was excited by the new power. Anyway, an execution chair was invented and William Kemmler, a convicted murderer, became its first victim.
Kemmler's death, like those of many others electrocuted since, was neither quick nor humane. The chair often results in steam, sometimes even flames, coming out of the victim's mouth and ears. It can melt the fat on the face and induce massive vomiting, defecating and urinating. The odour produced by boiling faeces and urine and burning skin is a kind of eau de execution which you can imagine for yourself. The ultra-dramatic (in black and white with pounding music and tension-filled pauses) reconstruction of Kemmler's death was really quite gratuitous. But, if it pointed up the barbarism of this "humane" device, perhaps it was worth it.
Home-produced drama this week saw Short Cuts screen A Basket Full Of Wallpaper, a strange little concoction about adolescence, myth and otherness. Sean, now working in London, but from small-town Ireland, recalls a teenage summer spent working locally with Osobe, an enigmatic Japanese man with an obsession for wallpapering. Unable to find out much about Osobe's past, Sean invents one which he shares with his friends at teenage cider parties.
So, Osobe becomes a wandering survivor of Hiroshima. Or, he might have been a kamikaze pilot who ejected just in time. Or, a torturer. Or, a PoW. His foreignness guarantees that his past be exotic. And, indeed, that is the way such people are perceived in small, otherwise homogenous communities: big history, world history aggrandising Ballygo
backwards. It was a kind of rite-of-passage drama, observant and telling. But when Osobe dies and we see that he had wallpapered even over the inside of his front door, we are in neurotic, not exotic country. Weird and not fully satisfactory, the short film did suggest something about the roots of folklore.
Finally, in a week when Gazza and Ginger Spice received as much news coverage (especially on Sky News) as 4,000 deaths in Afghanistan, the seriously weird news-documentary was Nicholas Owen's Diana - The Se- crets Behind The Crash. The ray guns, vanished cars and conspiracy theories were bad enough. But Nick's reverential presentation - animated sombreness - was sad indeed. The Elvisisation of Diana continues apace. With Ally McBeal in drama and Nicholas Owen in documentary, it's hard to take it any more. A grim week.