Why I Should Binge-Watch Ally McBeal

Dave Lange

WHAT IS Ally McBeal ABOUT?

A quirky comedy/drama centered around a young, single female lawyer who wages many professional battles while also trying to sort out her personal life as she searches for love and the perfect guy.

Original TV Home: FOX

Number Of Seasons: 5 (September 1997 to May 2002)

Total Episodes / Time Table: 111 (approx. 42 to 45 minutes each, plus one 84-minute episode) = approx. 84 hours.

Viewing Strategy: Each season had 21 to 23 episodes. Season 5 contained a 84-minute episode. You can take in the entire series in 28 days by watching 4 episodes (approx. 3 hours) per day.

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WHO’S IN IT? Top

Calista Flockhart on ALLY MCBEAL CR:Matthew Rolston/FOX
Calista Flockhart on ALLY MCBEAL
CR:Matthew Rolston/FOX

Calista Flockhart, Gil Bellows, Greg Germann, Jane Krakowski, Dyan Cannon, Lisa Nicole Carson, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Peter MacNicol, Vonda Shepard. A plethora of other actors jump aboard as regulars along the way, including: Portia de Rossi, Lucy Liu, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Bon Jovi, Regina Hall, Julianne Nicholson, Josh Hopkins, Christina Ricci and Hayden Panettiere. Also, a massive and impressive collection of recurring and guest stars includes such notables as: Tate Donovan, Kate Jackson, Kathy Baker, Cynthia Stevenson, Sandra Bernhard, Brooke Burns, John Michael Higgins, Jason Gedrick, Jesse L. Martin, Dame Edna Everage, Carl Reiner, Tracey Ullman, Taye Diggs, Matthew Perry, Anne Heche, Bruce Willis, Al Green, Barry White, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dylan McDermott and many more.

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WHERE IS IT NOW? Top

Netflix (U.S. only), Hulu, iTunes. Individual seasons are available on DVD; a DVD boxed set containing all five seasons is also available.

 

Begin why is it binge worthy section

WHY IS IT BINGE WORTHY? Top

This was really executive producer David E. Kelley‘s big TV breakthrough. Although he had been at the creative helm of such series as Picket Fences, Chicago Hope and Doogie Howser, M.D., it was Ally McBeal that catapulted Kelley into the major league of TV executive producers. And his brilliant writing simply sparkles throughout the entire series.

Ally McBeal was also a major career break for Calista Flockhart, who was a relatively unknown actress before this show came along. Flockhart tops the cast in the title role, a young lawyer who joins Cage, Fish & Associates, a Boston law firm run by an old school chum named Richard Fish (Greg Germann). Gil Bellows co-stars as Ally’s childhood love/soulmate, Billy Thomas, who, it turns out, works at the same firm and, it turns out, is married to a beautiful woman named Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith).

Ally McBeal quickly became a big hit for Fox, scooping up a bunch of Emmys, Golden Globes and other awards along the way, including the Television Critics Association’s first-ever award for Outstanding New Program. The series had a lot of behind-the-scenes baggage, though, with rumors of affairs, drug addictions and eating disorders raging on during its run. The series was also the object of some criticism from those who deemed it chauvinistic and labeled the lead character as demeaning to women, thanks to her many insecurities – and her high hemlines.

A lot of cast members graduated to other prominent TV shows after Ally McBeal ended its run. Among them: Portia de Rossi (Arrested Development, Scandal), Lucy Liu (Dirty Sexy Money, Southland, Elementary), Jane Krakowski (30 Rock, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Peter MacNicol (24, Numb3rs, Grey’s Anatomy, CSI: Cyber), Courtney Thorne-Smith (According To Jim, Two And A Half Men), Hayden Panetierre (Heroes, Nashville) and Calista Flockhart (Brothers & Sisters, Full Circle, Supergirl).

The premise remained constant, but the characters went through a lot of changes during the show’s run. Although the backdrop was always a legal drama, the show was more about the personal and romantic lives of its characters. Episodes were often filled with eccentric fantasy sequences, ranging from exploding heads to a dancing baby.

Music had a huge role in many episodes, with the lyrics often underscoring an episode’s thematic message. Ironically, flaws in the original music-licensing agreements for the series prevented Ally McBeal from being released on DVD in the U.S. until 2009 – a full seven years after it finished its run on broadcast TV.

Vonda Shepard, a relatively unknown songstress at the time, was a constant fixture during most of the show’s run. As well as singing the show’s theme song (Searchin’ My Soul), Shepard appeared regularly as the singer in the bar where the gang from Cage, Fish & Associates would hang out. Other artists were also later featured in various ways on the show, including: Barry White, Al Green, Barry Manilow, Tina Turner, Elton John, Sting, Mariah Carey and Josh Groban.

Several of the characters ended up with some sort of “personal theme song.” Among the most notable: The Wicked Witch Of The West theme from The Wizard Of Oz that often accompanied the appearance of Ling Woo (Lucy Liu); Ally’s own personal theme song (Tell Him); and John Cage (Peter MacNicol) and many others grooving to Barry White’s You’re The First, The Last, My Everything – a tune that was repeated so often over the show’s run that, in many ways, it became the show’s secondary theme song.

 

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MUST SEES … Top

 

Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1): Naturally, it sets the stage for the series. But the first episode also introduces the quirky and comedic moments where goofball things in Ally’s imagination are played out on screen. The device continued as the series progressed, boosted by sound effects and many other twists. There’s also a clever “insider” scene in which Ally is on the streets of Boston and encounters a pedestrian whom she berates for bumping into her. The pedestrian is billed in the end credits as Glance Heavenward. He was actually played by Jeffrey Kramer, who was a co-executive producer on the show’s first two seasons.

 

Compromising Positions (Season 1, Episode 2): This episode introduces Peter MacNicol as John Cage and Dyan Cannon as Judge Whipper Cone. Also notable is a scene in which Ally and Georgia are in a bar talking about the difference between men and women when Georgia points out a good-looking guy across the room. If you blink, you’ll miss the guy, who was an extra seen only briefly: a very young Jon Hamm, better known these days as Don Draper on Mad Men.

 

The Attitude (Season 1, Episode 7): Ally decides to adopt a new attitude toward men and dating. Meanwhile, Georgia is embroiled in a lawsuit with her employer. A couple of offbeat moments mark the episode, including a scene in which Ally and Georgia have an accidental encounter in a bathroom stall, and a scene in which John Cage prepares for a litigation meeting by playing the bagpipes, –   one of many eccentric traits that would be revealed about him as the series goes on.

 

Drawing The Lines (Season 1, Episode 8): The opening sequence includes a scene in which Ally and Georgia savor Starbucks cappuccinos in a sensuous way, while Billy and Richard secretly look on.

 

Silver Bells (Season 1, Episode 11): The first Christmas episode of the series features a clever cameo appearance near the end, during the office Christmas party, where Renee is slow-dancing with Peter Roth, who was then the president of the Fox television network, which aired Ally McBeal at that time. (Roth is now president of Warner Bros. Television.)

 

Cro-Magnon (Season 1, Episode 12): Ally begins dating a nude model who has a particularly impressive, um, attribute. In addition, the episode features Ally’s first visions of the famed Dancing Baby, whose appearance is set to the strains of Blue Swede’s 1970s hit, Hooked On A Feeling. (Ooga Chaka / Ooga, Ooga, Ooga Chaka …)

 

The Inmates (Season 1, Episode 20), These Are The Days (Season 1, Episode 23) and Making Spirits Bright (Season 2, Episode 10): A trio of episodes notable for guest appearances by Dylan McDermott, Lara Flynn Boyle and Michael Badalucco as the characters they also played on another Kelley series, The Practice, which ran on a different network at the same time. The Inmates actually has a storyline that crossed over to The Practice. Crossovers are commonplace on TV now; they were rare back then.

 

The Real World (Season 2, Episode 1) and They Eat Horses, Don’t They? (Season 2, Episode 2): These two episodes introduce the characters of “Sub-Zero” Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi) and the super-icy Ling Woo (Lucy Liu) to the team at Cage, Fish & Associates.

 

Those Lips, That Hand (Season 2, Episode 18): The episode wraps up at the bar, as Ling discovers Richard’s talent for the “knee pit” and Nelle serves up a surprise present – Barry White – for John’s 35th birthday.

 

Heat Wave (Season 3, Episode 4): Billy’s chauvinistic attitudes reach a climax as he makes a big, bold change to his appearance in order to get his life back in order. Meanwhile, things heat up on several other fronts for Ally, Richard and Georgia.

 

Troubled Water (Season 3, Episode 5): Ally ends up throwing a Thanksgiving party that turns out to be a train wreck on several fronts – especially when Ally introduces her parents (James Naughton, Jill Clayburgh) to Georgia.

 

Ally McBeal: The Musical, Almost (Season 3, Episode 21): This episode tried something really different. It is peppered with musical numbers – including the opening theme song – performed by various cast members. It’s a bit of a stretch in a couple of instances, but it’s amusing nonetheless.

 

Sex, Lies And Second Thoughts (Season 4, Episode 1): A significant episode that introduces the character of Larry Paul, played by Robert Downey Jr. The chemistry between Ally and Larry seemed so perfect that it seemed like it would have lasted forever – if it hadn’t been for Downey’s sudden departure from the show, rumored at the time to have been due to a serious drug problem.

 

The Wedding (Season 4, Episode 23) and Nine One One (Season 5, Episode 7): These episodes introduced the world to singer Josh Groban, who played Malcolm Wyatt, a young man with quite a voice. It was soon after his appearances on Ally McBeal that Groban’s singing career took off.

 

Blowin’ In The Wind (Season 5, Episode 9): Ally decides to buy a house. Perhaps more significant, the episode introduces the character of handyman Victor Morrison, played by Jon Bon Jovi, who becomes yet another man in Ally’s life.

 

A Kick In The Head (Season 5, Episode 11): Ally discovers she has a daughter, thanks to an egg she donated for an infertility study that was mistakenly given away. The spunky 10-year-old who shows up at her doorstep is played by … wait for it … a very young Hayden Panetierre (now better known as Juliette Barnes on Nashville).

 

The New Day (Season 5, Episode 12): Richard makes Ally a partner, renaming the firm as Fish, Cage & McBeal & Associates.

 

Love Is All Around (Season 5, Episode 16): It’s the show’s only longer-than-usual episode (84 minutes), introducing Christina Ricci to the cast as a lawyer named Liza Bump.

 

Bygones (Season 5, Episode 20): The series finale starts off with a recap of highlights from the show’s entire run – just to remind you of how great some of its moments were. There are lots of other flashbacks throughout the entire episode, as Ally makes a major life decision to quit the firm and move to New York with her daughter. The final scene reunites the core cast in a tearful farewell that provides a fitting conclusion to the show’s entire emotional journey.

 

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MOST SHOCKING EPISODES Top

 

Boy To The World (Season 1, Episode 10): Ally represents a transgender defendant on a solicitation charge. Her defense strategy is to plead insanity and claim that the defendant has a mental disorder known as “transvestite fetishism.” Given the proliferation of highly-publicized transgender cases today, it’s amazing to see how this episode was really so ahead of its time. But the final scenes serve up a surprising and sad conclusion.

 

Boy Next Door (Season 3, Episode 16): Billy’s hallucinations provide some comical moments, but there’s a cruel twist of fate in store as the hallucinations begin to happen more frequently. To say much more would give too much away.

 

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THAT LINE WAS SO GREAT… Top

 

“I’m not sure how it all started. Ugh. It was ’cause I smelled his bottom. It wasn’t that stupid. We saw dogs do it. That’s how they knew for sure.”

– From Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1): The very first lines of the series. A voiceover that accompanies a series of flashbacks as Ally (Calista Flockhart) recalls the beginnings of her loving relationship with Billy (Gil Bellows) back when they were young kids.

 

“Love and law are the same – romantic in concept, but the actual practice can give you a yeast infection.”

– From Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1): The first lines after the opening credits – another voiceover as Ally begins her job as a lawyer.

 

“Unisex studies show it helps men and women employees breed familiarity – as long as they don’t come in to just breed.”

– From Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1): Richard (Greg Germann) explains to Ally that the office bathroom is a unisex facility.

“Make enough money, everything else will follow. Quote me. That’s a Fish-ism.”

– From Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1): Richard Fish and Ally McBeal talk about life, love – and money – as they ride the elevator at the end of what has been quite a week for Ally.

“Bygones.”

– From Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1) and countless other episodes: The word that Richard Fish uses as he tries to get Ally and Billy to stop bickering. It is the “Fish-ism” that will become Richard’s trademark.

“Snappish.”

– From Compromising Positions (Season 1, Episode 2) and numerous episodes afterward: A word that Elaine (Jane Krakowski) turns into her signature reference to Ally’s attitude and behavior.

 

“Maybe it’s just the waddle … on her neck. That’s what I go for with older women – the loose skin on the neck, the hint of a waddle. There’s nothing more arousing for me – the way it just gently hangs there. And Whipper – I mean, her neck’ s pretty tight now, but you can see the potential. It’ll be perfect, so perfect. I wonder, do I really love her or is it just the impending waddle? It just makes me crazy!”

– From Compromising Positions (Season 1, Episode 2): Richard explaining to Ally what attracts him to Whipper (Dyan Cannon) – and, as it turns out, a lot of other women as well.

“The Little Biscuit.”

– From Compromising Positions (Season 1, Episode 2): John Cage reveals his high-school nickname to Ally.

“Ally is a very important friend of mine. And if you’re really interested in her, well, that’s one thing. But if you’re just after a few cheap thrills, you’ll have to go through me.”

– From The Kiss (Season 1, Episode 3): Elaine (Jane Krakowski) confronting Ron Cheanie (Tate Donovan) when he comes to the office to see Ally and discuss their relationship.

“There’s no embarrassing way to make money – what’s with the jock strap? Somebody lay a trap?”

– From The Affair (Season 1, Episode 4): Richard asks Elaine about the “face bra” which she invented and is demonstrating.

 

“Ally, one of the keys to life – the ‘Fast Forward.’ Every movie has its lousy parts. The trick is, fast forward through them. See, as time passes, you look back and say, ‘Oh, that little adultery thing – oh, that.’ You fast forward to then right now – and you’re over it.”

– From The Affair (Season 1, Episode 4): Richard giving advice to Ally in her office, giving her a Fish-ism that she calls his “best yet.”

“Sometimes, I’m tempted to become a street person, cut off from society. But then I wouldn’t get to wear my outfits.”

– From One Hundred Tears Away (Season 1, Episode 5): Ally, in a voiceover, as she is walking the streets and assessing the state of her personal and professional life.

 

“Renee, it’s the new me. You were right. I have got to start ruling men in. I have Roberts on Tuesday, the rabbi on Thursday, ‘Chicago Hope’ in between. I have a life.”

– From The Attitude (Season 1, Episode 7): Ally explains her new dating philosophy to Renee in a line that includes a clever inside reference to another of executive producer David E. Kelley’s TV series.

“Women shouldn’t enjoy sex. Period. If God wanted that, He’d have given them penises.”

– From Blowin’ In The Wind (Season 5, Episode 9): Richard explains his views on love and sex.

“I like a fresh bowl.”


– From several different episodes: John Cage, explaining why he flushes a toilet before using it.

“You know, I had a dream that they put my face on the cover of ‘Time’ magazine as ‘the face of feminism.’”

– From Love Unlimited (Season 2, Episode 12): Ally makes a clever reference to the June 19, 1988 cover of Time, which actually featured Flockhart’s face, along with those of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Susan B. Anthony. The cover line: Is Feminism Dead?

 

“You know, I had a – a great aunt once who said, if you stare at beautiful women too long, you turn to stone. She was partially right.”

– From The Dirty Joke (Season 1, Episode 9): Richard relaying his thoughts to Billy as the office mail girl (Brooke Burns) leaves after delivering a letter to Richard.

“I really wouldn’t worry about it, Billy. I mean, when you think of it, after women marry and have kids, they don’t want any part of a man’s penis. The bigger it is, the more of him she doesn’t want. That’s all. Fish-ism.”

– From Cro-Magnon (Season 1, Episode 12): Richard reassures Billy after Billy finds out about the nude male model from Ally’s sculpting class that his wife, Georgia, has also joined.

“Oh, Ally, I don’t pretend to be psychic or even clairvoyant. But when I look at you, I see a tender woman. I see a vulnerable one, too. Then, when I hear about your fears and trepidations, I see an elitist little snot who can’t bear the idea of shacking up with a plumber! Get over it, Ally McBeal! This man fiddles with pipes for a living. Why not let him have a wee go at yours?”

– From Love Is All Around (Season 5, Episode 16): Claire Otems (Dame Edna Everage) offers up some dating advice when Ally considers the implications of seriously dating Victor (Jon Bon Jovi).

 

“I think the, the question on a lot of your minds, since we haven’t known each other too long: Will we be having safe sex tonight? Or will we, because we’re husband and wife, automatically donate the Trojans to a shelter? Well, the truth is, safe sex has always been easy for me. Safe love, that’s something different.”

– From Bygones (Season 5, Episode 20): Richard Fish expresses his vows as he and Liza (Christina Ricci) get married.

 

“Looking backwards, many of the saddest times in my life turn out to be the happiest. So, I must be happy now. Yeah, this is gonna be good. Why else would I be crying?”

– From Bygones (Season 5, Episode 20): Ally’s final voiceover after she says goodbye to her friends. They’re also the final lines of the series.