Shiny Shelf

Ally McBeal: Seasons 1 to 3

By Mark Clapham on 24 November 2002

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Some may complain about these being fairly extra-less, ‘vanilla’ releases, but frankly I’m grateful they’re coming out at all. As a recently deceased TV show, there’s going to be a limited period of residual interest in Ally, so kudos to Fox for putting the lot out on DVD before that interest evaporates. It’s a good time to have a brief round up of those first three years of one of the most distinctive shows of the late nineties. Although there’s little in the way of special features on these disks, and the menus are completely static, the episodes are in decent transfers, and they’re nicely packaged in two box sets per season. For further information on these seasons, head straight for a copy of Soul Searching. In the mean time, here’s a brief flavour…

Season One

Ally McBeal, first broadcast in 1997, is the story of a single female lawyer who ends up working at an eccentric law firm with the love of her life, who is now married. Ally is prone to vivid flights of fancy, and has romantic misadventures as well as in depth relationship chats with all of her pals. That’s the premise, and it was an instant, much imitated hit. The central axis of this first season is the relationship between Ally, old boyfriend Billy, and Billy’s new wife Georgia. John Cage, so central to the later seasons, is initially a recurring, showy guest star, used sparingly as a super-weapon in difficult cases. It’s John who provides an arc to the season, as increasingly absurd cases fall before the might of his legal prowess, leading to a brilliant pay-off in the final episode of the year. This season has a flow and coherence that, out of all the later seasons, only the fourth year (the Ally and Larry show: see reviews here and here) would manage.

The show quickly establishes itself with its glossy approach – the hallucinatory special effects are great, the editing is snappy and there are some fine guest stars (Willie Garson appears in two separate roles!). Individual highlights have to include the superb Christmas episode Silver Bells, and The Inmates, which brings in characters from another legal show, The Practice, to highlight how strange Ally’s world is from the outside. This is a great season, and it’s completely understandable that the show took audiences by storm.

Season Two

Season Two represents the height of Ally as ensemble drama with the introduction of Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi) and Ling Woo (Lucy Liu) completing an unbeatable cast. Ally herself becomes very much one of the group for most of the season, and for a while the romance between John Cage and Nelle steals the show. Not that the show’s central character is entirely neglected – Pyramids on the Nile and Sideshow bring the Ally/Billy/Georgia love triangle back to centre stage, and Calista Flockhart gets good material all the way through the season.

Highlights? Well, thrifty purchasers won’t go far wrong buying the first half of the season, which is as consistent a run of episodes as you’ll see, right up until the point where the show takes a mid-season dip with the saccharine Making Spirits Bright. There are a couple of other duffers – notably the vile Angels and Blimps – to follow, but early in the second box set things pick up substantially with the aforementioned Ally-Billy arc. The second half of the season includes many of the show’s iconic signature moments, including the wonderful dance routine at the end of Those Lips, That Hand. The series ends strongly, albeit bleakly, with I Know Him By Heart, which is depressing even by Ally standards. With hindsight these latter season two episodes can be seen as the last days of the Cage & Fish gang as a fully functional ensemble.

Season Three

As the third year progresses, things fall apart for the characters. There’s separation, discord, conflict and death ahead. As the season moves along, relationships become strained and fractured, and the feeling of the law firm as a solid group collapses completely. There are external reasons for some of this, not least of which being the desire of certain cast members to move on, and one very public illness taking Lisa Nicole Carson (Renee) out of the picture for much of the year.

The early part of the season is Ally McBeal going for ratings glory with some astonishing sensationalist stories. Ally has a fling in a car wash! Ally gets put on drugs! Ally kisses Ling! John spanks Nelle! All very saucy, but exploitative and incoherent. As Billy becomes a male chauvinist pig, Georgia splits from the group and John and Nelle find their relationship increasingly strained, the season gets darker and darker. Out In The Cold and Pursuit Of Loneliness are just miserable, excellent Ally-led episodes but loaded with depression, doomed love and general grinding badness. Some shows are just too wacky – In Search Of Pygmies falls flat on its face, and The Oddball Parade isn’t much better. It’s with The Boy Next Door that an emotional high point is reached, and it would be churlish to blow the twist for anyone who hasn’t seen this run yet. Suffice to say that it’s the point of no return – Ally McBeal can never be the same again after this, the status quo will never be restored.

The end of the season seems to hint at a fresh direction, introducing a few excellent new characters in the form of Mark, Brian and Hope, and leading Nelle and John’s conflict to a major confrontation. Unfortunately, punches are pulled at the start of season four to remove this direction – Nelle is swiftly folded back into the gang after a change of heart, Mark loses all the distinctive character he comes in with, Hope disappears altogether and Brian turns out to be rather tepid. Arguably, the series would never work as a coherent ensemble show again, with secondary characters reinvented and sidelined throughout the remaining two years of the show. But that’s a problem for another season – with the final episode of the third series – Ally McBeal: The Musical, Almost – it all seems to be coming together. While not up there with Xena’s The Bitter Suite or Buffy’s Once More With Feeling, mainly because it uses old songs rather than specially written work, the musical episode is strong on its own terms and ends the season on a definite high. There’s also a cute bonus on the disk for UK viewers – while the Channel Four broadcast of the episode used the normal title sequence, the version on the DVD retains the bizarre original US broadcast title sequence, with the female cast singing the theme tune raucously. It isn’t pretty, but it is amusing and gives the second box set of the season extra appeal.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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