Did you ever watch something for entertainment and suddenly feel like you’re getting to know yourself better?
Pandemic + Ally McBeal Binge = Me.
I watched this series about a 20-something lawyer in Boston back when it came out in 1997. I was in my late 30s then and I recall enjoying the show and the subsequent water cooler conversations about it.
The show’s writer and creator, David E. Kelley, assembled a quirky, compelling cast of characters, but one of the other reasons it was popular was the way the show used cartoonish, outsized moments to effect. Something obvious and awkward happening in a conference room? Kelley puts an actual elephant in the room for a split second. Jarringly funny. And perhaps most famously, the unique way he portrayed Ally’s ticking biological clock – the Ooga-Chaka dancing baby.
Watching the show as a 58-year-old, it turns out, is a much different experience.
First of all, viewing it through the lens of #MeToo is almost distracting. I found I just had to put those sensibilities aside. The law office, Cage and Fish, is oozing with sex and inappropriate workplace behavior. But, interestingly, it also brings to the forefront through litigation all measure of sexual harassment and relationship issues. The lawyers, working on cases on annulment or alienation of affection, shine in the courtroom because they bring a human element.
Second, I think back in the late 1990s I related to the show because I was living parts of it. Ally is so needy. Self-absorbed. Love obsessed. Every man is looked at as a potential partner. In retrospect I see the societal influence of what we were supposed to be seeking as young women.
What I see now is that Ally is wistful, sometimes annoying. But I always, always root for her. She’s such a well-drawn character and Calista Flockhart is superb in the role. She makes me feel.
In 2020, a pandemic raging in the United States, I’ve been vocal as a writer and coach about our need to feel. So each night, whether I watched one episode of Ally McBeal or looped three, I buckled up and rode the emotion train with guest stars like Jennifer Holliday, Al Green, Barry Manilow, Jill Clayburgh, Marlo Thomas, Josh Groban and Bernadette Peters. Or dishy guys in love interest roles like Antonio Sabato Jr., Taye Diggs and Robert Downey Jr.
It was the latter, Downey Jr. as Larry Paul, that mesmerized me in season four in a performance that won a Golden Globe. Smart, quick-witted, self-aware. Those eyes – yep, window to the soul. He comes along at a time in the series when Ally has been dating, mooning, lamenting, settling and even mourning. We’re primed for Larry, who is amused by her and takes her in.
He’s complex, real. Has been married. Has a son, Sam, by a woman who lives in Michigan. Ally absorbs this, recognizes that love can come with messiness. I am only at the beginning of loving you, he tells her. She encourages him to be with his son for a while when he clearly needs his father.
There is a point where Sam’s mother makes a play for Larry. He tells her, and I paraphrase, “It doesn’t matter if there’s attraction between us. You’re not her. She’s it. And even if she and I are over, you don’t want to follow her. Because she’s it.”
Every bit of dialogue involving Downey Jr. is irresistible, but why was it tugging at me so? I held my breath a few times. I’m teary just writing about it. I think it was tapping into a well of desire for that kind of love. I took to my notebook to explore it. Here’s what I wrote:
I’m not the “companionship” type. I’m not the “someone to grow old with” type. I’m the love-makes-you-batty and out-of-control type. It’s who I am. I don’t “need” the way others do. I need differently. Shake my life to the core or don’t bother. It’s why I so immediately shut down when a guy tried to ‘interview’ me once on a first phone call to set up a date. Where did I want to live in retirement? That kind of thing. Big questions for him. WTF for me. No right or wrong. Just is.
To be clear, I’m not saying I wouldn’t welcome someone to grow old with, as the saying goes. But it’s not a driver for me to spend hours and hours poring through dating profiles. As for batty and out of control? I mean it in the best way. I tend to let men pop in and let the wind take us where it will, scared out of my wits. And it can be years in between those men. I know and love many people who don’t think they’re whole without a partner; I’m just not one of them.
As I watch others struggle with being alone in this pandemic and don’t relate at all, it tells me more about who I am. It’s either great love or no love. I don’t do the in-between very well.
That’s why when Ally breaks up with a guy named Brian after six months, I cheered inside. She’s me. She recognized that being in a relationship just because he’s a nice guy isn’t enough. There has to be something there. In Sex and the City they called it Za Za Zu. It’s why you had your Aidan vs. Big debates. I was clearly in the Big camp. Juice. Banter. Sizzle. Ahhhhhh.
At one point in season four, Ally wonders if Larry will come back from Michigan. She has faith, but she’s only known him for two months, so some days she feels fraught. I know this feeling.
Something made me hit pause on the show and reach for my phone to call my voice mail. I have a message on there saved from 2011. It’s from the last guy I loved, the one who didn’t come back. The message ends, “Talk to you soon, sweetheart.”
Oh man, does Larry come back? Do they make it? They must. They must. I restarted the show.
Larry does come back and he’s luscious. They are luscious. She’s not settling. She’s riding out the fear.
But then real life intervenes in my fictional fantasy world. Robert Downey Jr. gets arrested in a drug-related incident and Kelley fires him from the show the episode before Larry and Ally are supposed to get married. The script improvise is that Larry leaves town and Ally is left with a note: I love you. Good-bye.
It’s wholly unsatisfying. There she is, left wondering if she’s used up all her great loves.