No doubt exists that the drama/farce Ally McBeal, which ran on the Fox Television Network from 1997 to 2002, was a phenomenal success, at least during its middle years (1998-1999). It sparked numerous fan websites in several countries including one devoted to “fan fiction” (a genre in which devotees of a television series or film try their hands at writing scripts), various product spinoffs,a series spinoff (Ally, a thirty minute version that featured only vignettes, no legal drama) and even a Time magazine article that seriously considered whether Ally represents “the end of feminism. Years after the show went off the air, its influence continues. The popular prime time medical show “Grey's Anatomy” has spawned a spin-off which is already drawing fire for its emphasis on protagonists who are “lovelorn, sex-starved and prone to public displays of disaffection.” The reason, says writer Alessandra Stanley, is traceable directly to Ally McBeal, a show which emphasized a heroine who “marked a turning point in the devolution of women's roles in television comedy — the moment when competent-but flaky hardened into basket case.”
What made this thin, goofy, self-absorbed character so popular, at least before rumors and scandal about anorexia and drug use made the show more famous for off-screen shenanigans than on-screen accomplishment? Why was she so powerful a figure that a major U.S. news magazine devoted an important story to discussing her impact? I suggest that one of the major factors in Ally's rise was the fact that writer/producer David E. Kelley cast her as an attorney, the professional that everyone loves to hate, but also a woman who is, to be honest, fairly bad at her job, at least in the first three years, and arguably during her entire (fictional) career. As a woman attorney, Ally fits within the tradition of female lawyers who are either good at their jobs, or good at their relationships, but not both, and in Ally's case, neither. Further, Ally's impact is such that commentators both in the popular media and in legal academia continue to refer to her. She, and her series, have become “memes” — a character whose mention immediately sparks all sorts of associations. Kelley's willingness to test the boundaries of the law through storylines also ensures that the episodes of all the shows with which he is involved (not just Ally McBeal) retain their freshness.
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