'McBeal' looks like quirky quality Preview: Legal drama is sleek and smart, but remember, this is Fox.

September 08, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

This is definitely going to be the year of the hourlong drama on network television.

By the end of next month, when the new fall schedules are in place, there will be a record number of such series on the air. Fox debuts its best and brightest tonight with "Ally McBeal," from producer David E. Kelley.

"Ally McBeal" is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it is

bona fide quality TV from the creator of "Chicago Hope" and "Picket Fences." Kelley took over "L.A. Law" during its last few seasons after Steven Bochco left, and he brings the same smart, offbeat, legal sensibility to this drama about a young Harvard Law School graduate trying to find her place in the world.

Calista Flockhart, who starred in "The Birdcage" on Broadway, plays McBeal. Once you get past how much she looks like Kelley's wife, actress Michelle Pfeiffer, you can start to admire her work. Hitting the right notes in a show with the kind of quirky tone that distinguishes this one is not easy. Flockhart misses only a few.

The series opens in voice-over -- McBeal staring out a window, calling herself a "victim of my own choices," wondering "how it all started."

The "it" in McBeal's life generally refers to her love affair with a boy named Billy Alan Thomas that started when they were 7 years old and continued straight through to Harvard Law. It ended when Billy transferred to the University of Michigan. She's still got the ache for Billy (Gil Bellows).

There are aches and pains on the career front, too. Soon after starting her first job, McBeal is sexually harassed by one of her firm's senior partners. She's the one who gets fired when the firm decides it will cost less to be sued by her than by the senior partner.

And, just when McBeal thinks her love and professional lives can't get worse, they come together in exquisite misery: She winds up working in a small firm in which Billy is the star lawyer.

All of the Ally-Billy history is told in flashback montage, and Kelley can montage with the best of them. A first, tender, awkward, adolescent kiss. Studying together in the college library late at night. Walking, hugging, kissing in the rain. And all of these images slamming across the screen over the "drown in my own tears," melancholy lyrics of Vonda Shepard.

Kelley bookends the hour with such montages. The first is an impressive piece of visual storytelling. The second, which comes at the very end, will blow you away emotionally and make you think you had a far deeper viewing experience than you actually did.

This is where I start to have problems with "Ally McBeal."

The series feels deep and even serious in its own way. But, after it's over and all the emotions that Kelley stirred with the music and pictures have cooled, think about its messages and values. It mostly celebrates making money, "piles and piles of money," as Ally's new boss puts it.

In keeping with that yuppie theme, it also celebrates self-absorption like no series since "thirtysomething." In fact, "Ally McBeal" goes way beyond the self-centeredness of "thirtysomething" through its device of showing viewers McBeal's inner life through scenes that bring her feelings and fantasies to life.

For example, after being teased by her female roommate about wanting bigger breasts and denying it, McBeal looks in the bathroom mirror and says in voice-over: "I do wish my breasts were bigger. Not huge, just less small. They'd, I'd look good less small "

As she's saying this, her breasts literally start to expand until the strap on her bra breaks, a la Walter Mitty or, maybe more appropriately, Woody Allen.

Forget the titillation factor. After all, this is Fox, and you can't expect Fox to get the religion of quality drama overnight.

What's far worse is what a poster girl for self-absorption McBeal is throughout the hour. This is Kelley, the baby boomer, passing along some of his generation's worst values to viewers in their 20s at whom this series is targeted.

At moments like this, McBeal -- the physically attractive, Harvard-educated career woman with the great wardrobe -- seems more like a selfish, whiny brat than someone you could come to care about week in and week out.

Fox has a huge advertising commitment to this series built around the statement: "Only Fox would bring you a series that dares to reveal what's most exciting about a woman her mind."

That sounds progressive as all get-out. But the series isn't about McBeal's intellect. It's about her emotions, her feelings, her "whoa, whoa, whoa, feelings," as the song says.

There is nothing progressive about depicting a woman as an emotional pinball careening from being overwrought about her career to rocked by her old feelings for a boyfriend. And, once you get past all the sleek montage and smart writing, that's what you have.

For all of that gender-and-generation culture talk, in the end, maybe the most important thing to know about "Ally McBeal" is that it follows "Melrose Place" and features Courtney Thorne-Smith (long-time "Melrose" star) in a supporting role as Billy's wife.

Fox has been searching desperately for years to find a companion series to hold the Monday night audience of young viewers that tunes in for "Melrose Place."

Will Heather Locklear fans identify strongly enough with Ms. Harvard Law to stay tuned? Maybe, with the help of Thorne-Smith and McBeal in front of her bathroom mirror instead of a presiding judge. After all, this is Fox.

'Ally McBeal'

What: Series premiere

When: 9-10 tonight

Where: Fox (WBFF, Channel 45)

Star: Calista Flockhart

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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