What DOES the return of Ally McBeal say about women's lives today?

What DOES the return of Ally McBeal say about women’s lives today? Ditsy, shallow, emotionally unstable and waif-thin, she was the TV lawyer loved by millions… but loathed by feminists, writes LIZ JONES

Rarely do I provoke someone to the extent that they answer back on the cover of a glossy magazine.

Yet, at the tail end of the 1990s, I did exactly that, prompting the biggest (and smallest) star of the day into expressly telling me in huge letters: ‘I’m thin, so what?’

I had been wailing in print — in my own magazine, Marie Claire, and in this newspaper — that Calista Flockhart, the star of Ally McBeal, was a danger to women’s health.

She was the kind of Hollywood thin that rendered her features too big for her face, her skull too large for her tiny body, clad as it ubiquitously was in a pelmet skirt that revealed her kidneys.

Ally was the anti-Bridget Jones. While Bridget was healthy, self-deprecating, sweet, funny, clever and a loyal friend, Ally was a she-devil who would trample any woman who got in the way of her catching the bridal bouquet.

 Unlovable heroine: Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal

She would also, pathetically, collapse in a puddle on the floor if she found an alpha male attractive.

She was ditsy, she was shallow, she was emotionally unstable (I lost count of the catfights) and she seemed to know nothing about law, despite the degree and the job with Boston firm Cage & Fish.

In short, she was just intensely annoying.

The show was steeped in fantasy, with bizarre visual effects hammering home to the viewers Ally’s inner emotions. Annoyed by a man, she throws him out of the window. Offended by a colleague’s pregnancy, a missile blasts a hole through that non-existent tummy. We’re not dim as well, we get it!

She was a simpering, flirtatious, skinny, hysterical cartoon, as far from being a role model for professional women as could be.

Maybe that’s why men fancied her. Indecisive, insecure, naive; Ally was quite literally the little woman any man could boss around.

Which is the reason Time magazine put her doll-like face on its cover in 1998, alongside cut-outs of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, with the line: ‘Is feminism dead?’

She was ditsy, she was shallow, she was emotionally unstable (I lost count of the catfights) and she seemed to know nothing about law, despite the degree and the job with Boston firm Cage & Fish

During that time, I was campaigning with the government for magazines and the media in general to stop celebrating extreme thinness. ELLE retaliated with Calista Flockhart on the cover, saying, ‘I’m thin, so what?’ A big, fat middle finger to me.

Later, in 2001, I put Renee Zellweger as Bridget on the cover of Marie Claire, applauding the fact that at last we were able to glimpse a woman with cellulite on the big screen.

Now, with news of an Ally McBeal reboot in the works, it looks as though irritating Ally and the annoying Dancing Baby — another computer-generated special effect that appeared whenever she contemplated her biological clock — are back.

Oh no. Oh, God, no. Do we really need a man-chasing, office-bound, superannuated stick insect whose main achievement is to still be the same dress size? Do we need men who remain squabbling, vain boys and refuse to grow up? Do we?

More to the point, have the producers realised that in resurrecting Ally McBeal, they will be relaunching the least woke show in the world at a time when you can land yourself in hot water simply by trying to define what is a woman?

No doubt the snowflake generation will nod their self-obsessed heads at Ally’s constant whingeing, but the script will have to be heavily updated to reflect the modern woes of young professionals today — not being able to ‘WFH’ is an infringement of my human rights, for example.

And yet, at first glance, Ally McBeal did seem presciently diverse, especially when compared with Sex And The City and Friends, which were contemporaneous on our screens (Ally McBeal ran from 1997 to 2002).

Asian actress Lucy Liu had a starring role, as did black actresses Lisa Nicole Carson and Regina Hall. The office even had a unisex washroom.

But scratch the surface, and a different picture emerges.

Lucy Liu was a stereotypical inscrutable block of Eastern ice. The black characters were curvaceous, loud, down-to-earth mother figures. The unisex loo was merely yet another location for characters to grope, bitch and wail.

Yes, Portia de Rossi was, in real life, a lesbian, but she didn’t come out publicly until 2005, after the show had ended.

Ally McBeal was the nail in the coffin of the professional woman, who had been growing in stature since the early 1980s. We were portrayed as ditsy, drunk, dishevelled and impossibly hormonal. Who, frankly, would employ us?

Ally McBeal was the nail in the coffin of the professional woman, who had been growing in stature since the early 1980s. We were portrayed as ditsy, drunk, dishevelled and impossibly hormonal. Who, frankly, would employ us?

In contrast, although they didn’t tick any diversity boxes, the four Sex And The City women were loyal, funny and ate and drank exactly what they pleased. Men came a very poor fifth.

Carrie was a one-woman celebration of fashion and individuality, whereas Ally McBeal, in her succession of mid-1980s power skirt-suits with clumpy block heels, was about presenting an acceptable silhouette which dim, unimaginative boardroom bores could understand.

I could never fathom why some intelligent women claimed to love Ally McBeal, unless they loved it despite themselves. Did anyone really resonate with the shortcomings of such an unlovable, unprofessional heroine? Or was it the case that seeing your flaws wrapped up in a size 4 figurine rendered them cute and quirky?

But then, how to explain the ever-enduring appeal of Mills & Boon? Do today’s women really still hanker after a life of cliched, fairytale romance?

The show’s producers clearly think so. After all, by resurrecting a character that is utterly void of backbone, they clearly think there’s an appetite for a new breed of Stepford Wife. On the other hand, perhaps the rebooted show could be a salutary lesson to today’s young career women, snapping them out of their neuroses quicker than the spin of a dancing baby.

If the show does indeed return, I’d love to be on board to hone the script. I wouldn’t shoehorn in anything too woke, but I can imagine a world where Ally McBeal, now in her late-50s, has lost her job, home and mind because of a general flakiness and a lack of fat in her diet.

Ally McBeal unapologetically encouraged women to treat the office as a play pen when we should have been sharpening our knives, topping up our pensions, reading the small print of our contracts and childcare options, and prosecuting men for sexual harassment.

Not fulfilling every male fantasy in a mini-skirt that barely covered our legal briefs.

Ups and downs of the stars it made famous

The Kooky Leading Lady

Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal)   

Quirky, fragile and prone to song and dance-themed inner monologues, Calista was the show’s eponymous heroine.

Calista was in her early 30s when she was cast as the lovelorn lawyer at fictional Boston firm Cage & Fish. The first season aired in 1997, and by 1998 Calista was holding a Golden Globe award.

She was dogged by scrutiny about her weight during the show’s five-season run, later saying: ‘Maybe during the filming of Ally McBeal, with 12 to 14-hour days, I was not eating as I should. But even then I only lost a few pounds.’

Once the cameras stopped rolling, Calista, now 57, essentially disappeared from screens while she focused on raising her son Liam, whom she adopted as a single mother in 2001. A year later she met actor Harrison Ford, 23 years her senior, with the pair marrying in 2010.

As for acting roles, Calista has remained in demand. She apparently turned down a role on Desperate Housewives, later taken by Teri Hatcher, but went on to win acclaim as Kitty Walker in Brothers & Sisters and later had a role in Supergirl.

Wonderbra Girl

Jane Krakowski (Elaine)

As Elaine, Ally’s gossipy but dependable assistant, Jane endeared herself to viewers, in part because of her bizarre passion for inventions.

There was the automatic toilet seat warmer, the husband CD (which creates the audio impression that there’s a man in the house), and, who could forget, the face bra (she still has one at home). Krakowski only had about ten lines in the pilot script, so at her audition she wore her ‘tightest fuzzy Angora sweater, a little flip skirt and a Wonderbra’ — and a character was born.

The trained singer, now 53, went on to greater fame as Jenna Maroney in comedy series 30 Rock and landed a Tony Award for Nine on Broadway.

Office Baddie   

Lucy Liu (Ling)

Liu, now 53, auditioned for the role of Nelle Porter, but series creator David E. Kelley was so impressed he created icy Ling Woo just for her.

A villain of sorts (although viewers loved her), her appearance was often accompanied by the theme music for the Wicked Witch Of The West in The Wizard Of Oz.

Liu went on to appear in Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill: Volume 1. In 2015, her son Rockwell was born via surrogate. ‘It just seemed like the right option because I was working and I didn’t know when I was going to be able to stop,’ she said.

The Ice Queen 

Portia de Rossi (Nelle)

The Australian actress joined the show as ice queen Nelle in the second season. Instantly hated by women in the office, she struck up a romance with lovable John Cage.

Of her time on the show, she says: ‘It’s the kind of dream job actresses pray they get. And yet I was terrified of being exposed as gay.’ Having struggled with an eating disorder from a young age, her weight fell to 5st 12lb.

De Rossi, 49, later married talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, and went on to further TV success in Arrested Development. In 2018, she revealed she’d retired from acting.

Bubbly Bestie 

Lisa Nicole Carson (Renee)

Lisa, who played Ally’s best friend and flatmate Renee, had the distinction of appearing in two hit series simultaneously: ER and Ally McBeal.

Her bubbly on-screen persona masked off-screen trauma. She was struggling with bipolar disorder and ended up being sectioned and placed on suicide watch. Her contract wasn’t renewed for the final season of Ally McBeal, leaving her ‘devastated’.

Following another breakdown in 2004, the 53-year-old spent a decade away from Hollywood before attempting to relaunch her career in 2014.

Wayward Hunk 

Robert Downey Jr (Larry)

Love seemed to beckon for Ally at last when Robert Downey Jr joined the cast as Larry in season four.

He sang Every Breath You Take with Sting and won a Golden Globe. But it all went awry courtesy of the actor’s rather troubled life off-screen.

Downey Jr, who was struggling with drug addiction, had just left prison, and was arrested again before filming for the season was completed, necessitating a script change — a wedding became a break-up. However, now 57, he sobered up and went on to make a triumphant Hollywood comeback, with starring roles in Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes.

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