"The pragmatic answer is that Fox knew most men would be watching 'Monday Night Football' [on ABC], so we wanted a show that was more oriented toward women -- that was the initial seed. When I went back to my office and started hatching ideas, the word 'woman' was in there from the beginning.
"But I cringe when people ask me how I write women characters, because I tend to say, 'I don't know.' The dirty secret is that I don't write them differently than men. Some of the issues are probably more organic to story lines that women may find more appealing, but I don't actually sit in my office and say, 'OK, now, what would a man think vs. what a woman would think?' I just don't think about that kind of gender thing that way."
Shirley Peroutka, director of the Media Studies program at Goucher College, teaches courses in gender and television and does think about that kind of gender thing. She says she started thinking about "Ally McBeal" when five of her students in a television criticism course last semester wrote final papers about the series.
"One student thought Ally McBeal was a neat character -- a strong woman -- who she could really identify with," Peroutka says.
"But the authors of the other four papers had real problems with the character. They said, although there were good aspects -- she was a career woman, et cetera -- the concentration on her relationship with men showed her being a 'typical neurotic female' obsessed with male attention and her physical appearance. Even in her professional life, there were times when she fell apart and had to have some man come along and pat her on the back to make it OK."
Their conclusion, according to Peroutka: "Don't watch this show, you'll hate it."
Peroutka links "Ally McBeal" to "thirtysomething" (which ran on ABC from 1987 to 1991) -- another series that, while attracting a relatively small overall audience, inspired lots of love-hate reaction, especially in the press.
"Reading those papers, I was thinking how Ally McBeal is the new feminist character TV has invented starting with the women on 'thirtysomething.' Those characters were supposed to be 'new women,' but in episode after episode, they were shown crying, losing control, not being able to cope with the simplest things like their parents visiting. It's the male version of the new woman -- that's what it is -- and it's really problematic," Peroutka says.
The notion of McBeal's being more a male than female ideal is supported to some extent by Nielsen demographic data.
Stressing that "Ally MeBeal" has been on a "growth curve" since the end of "Monday Night Football," Jeff DeRome, vice president of corporate publicity for Fox, says the largest and most surprising percentage of that growth has come from young men.
"That growth with young men really goes against the conventional wisdom that it is all young women watching," De Rome says.
As for its being the top show with young women, there are five series on Fox alone that have larger audiences of women 18 to 34.
The series is growing in overall audience and made the Nielsen Top 25 for the first time on Feb. 2, after spending most of 1997 well below the Top 50. "Ally McBeal" could well become a hit, but it is way too early to call it one now -- let alone a "phenomenon" as some publications have. After all, "Homicide" finished 24th among all series for the entire 1993-1994 season -- not just one week -- and no one has ever called it a ratings hit.
But gender is not the only prism through which to view "Ally McBeal."
Dr. Michael Brody, a psychiatrist who writes about television and film for the Journal of Popular Culture, says he likes the series because of its depiction of the workplace. In fact, he's preparing a paper on it for the Washington Psychoanalytic Foundation, a professional organization that regularly meets to discuss the psychological aspects of popular culture, among other matters.
"In terms of work, one of the big appeals of the show is that nobody really works on the show. All people do is gossip. What a deal in her law firm. They gossip and interfere in each others' lives and have a wonderful time. That show is one big water cooler," Brody says.
"I mean, all the people are really involved in each others' lives -- even when they go to the bathroom. That unisex bathroom is very important: It's everyone literally in everyone else's business," he adds.
Brody says it is a "backlash" against the depersonalized discourse of e-mail, voice mail and pager messages that is overtaking our culture.
"We speak to each other in depersonalized monologues on computers," he says, explaining that the highly personalized world of "Ally McBeal" might seem especially attractive to a young person who has moved to a new city to take a job in a large, impersonal company surrounded by older workers who see him or her as a threat.
But as much as Brody likes the "personalized workplace" on the series, he acknowledges "absolute problems" with it in terms of gender and class.