Case closed?

As Ally McBeal waves goodbye tonight, an era of fantasizing, man-chasing, whining women seems to be fading away.

May 20, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Like her fashionable counterparts on shows like Sex and the City and Friends, Ally McBeal was a single woman with a high-powered career whose quest for a man often seemed more important than her quest for a corner office.

McBeal unabashedly pined after an ex-boyfriend married to a woman she worked with. She spent way too many episodes girlishly dreaming about finding a man. Her biological clock ticked so loudly it produced a phantom dancing baby.

Above all, viewers watched McBeal whine and pout for five long years about finding the ever-elusive permanent love of her life.

And then, gradually, they decided they didn't want to any more.

Ally McBeal, which was once ranked in the Top 20, was reportedly at a dismal 43rd a few weeks ago. At the height of its popularity in 1997 and 1998, Nielsen Media Research reported that an average of 10 million to 11 million viewers tuned in to the Fox show every Monday night. This season, the number was down to an average of 9.3 million.

So, after five seasons of episodes filled with surreal courtroom shenanigans and embarrassing man-chasing escapades, McBeal got canceled. The series' final episode airs on Fox tonight.

McBeal canceled, Monica on Friends now married, Sex and the City's Miranda becoming a mother - the neurotic, whiny single women that have been the toast of American pop culture in the past few years have gradually been fading away.

Or, at least, growing up.

The big question is: Are we finally sick and tired of them? Is it time for the navel-gazing Rachels and Carries to just shut up and go away?

Ally was only the latest in the line of single women who've popped up periodically to reign as pop culture's female of the moment. In the 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards was the inspirational nouveau working gal, who had a generation of women singing "She's gonna make it after all" along with her. And Murphy Brown in the '80s showed America that she - and women - could play ball in the patriarchal corporate world better than some males.

Ally McBeal was no different. When McBeal debuted in the fall of 1996, for many, actress Calista Flockhart's bimbo-esque lawyer character symbolized the new face of women. Time magazine even plastered Ally on its cover with the headline, "Is feminism dead?"

Yes, Ally was a player at a Boston law firm. But unlike Murphy, she wasn't gritty, she wasn't consciously tough as nails and she wasn't aggressively stomping - in sensible shoes - over her male co-workers to get to the top.

Vulnerable

Instead, Ally was unafraid to be vulnerable, she complained about the strain of trying to be Superwoman both at work and in her personal life, and her open explorations of the pain of returning to an empty house made it OK for women to feel the same.

All of a sudden, self-absorbed single women surfaced in all the crannies of pop culture. Suddenly Susan and Veronica's Closet became mildly popular, joining Friends in the genre of series focusing on the new breed of man-crazy single women.

And in the summer of 1998, the second coming of Ally occurred with the arrival of Carrie and gang in HBO's hit series Sex and the City. Its success sparked the wave of whiny single-woman movies that would include Bridget Jones's Diary and, more recently, Andie MacDowell's Crush.

At some point, however, it became too much.

Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw seemed too terrified of stability and the notion of Happily Ever After. The singles on Friends, with few of them having logged long-term relationships since they've been on air, were beginning to appear more juvenile as the seasons went by. And Ally's amorous failures had become too plentiful.

"The underlying theme is that she did want to find a husband and have a family and make that work," observed Tina Pieraccini, a communications studies professor at the State University of New York at Oswego who has taught classes on the depiction of women in the media. "But they can only have her searching for that so long. You can only play that scenario so many times."

Country's mood changed

Also, after Sept. 11, the American public has largely gravitated toward less narcissism and more stability on TV, Pieraccini said.

"People want comfort TV after Sept. 11," she said. "There's been a return to family shows. Even Sex and the City softened up."

And the softer Sex and the City - which saw flinty Miranda get pregnant, flighty Carrie get engaged (albeit briefly) and one-night-stand Samantha become a one-man woman - received its highest number of viewers yet. About 7.3 million people watched the show's season finale in February, more than 3 million more viewers than the previous year's season-ender got.

So, perhaps, it's just Ally we want to disappear.

The woman who unapologetically wore skirts so short they were more persuasive in court than her arguments. The woman who kissed clients and annoyingly fumbled her way through court cases with more nervous eye-fluttering than in any Hugh Grant movie. The woman whose long, Twiggy-like limbs smacked of anorexia and made 95 percent of American women feel bad (the remaining 5 percent being models, ballerinas and 12-year-old girls who haven't developed hips).

The fundamental problem with Ally was that if any real viewers actually had a friend like her in real life, she would have been slapped and shaken long ago and told to get a grip. Or at the least, go shopping.

Perhaps Fox executives finally figured that out.

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