On May 20, 2002, the final episode of the hit series “Ally McBeal” aired. Starring Calista Flockhart as the title character, the David E. Kelley dramedy was a hit after premiering on September 8, 1997. During its five-season run, the flighty, mini-skirt-wearing Boston lawyer contended with her quirky co-workers, as well as her own overactive imagination. McBeal was a relatable character to many young women. She was career-minded, while yearning for true love and dealing with the “dancing baby” reminder of her ticking biological clock. Even though the Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning show addressed many progressive issues of the day, it also became a flashpoint for feminist debate.
McBeal is a Harvard-educated lawyer who leaves her New York City law firm after getting sexually harassed by a fellow attorney. She begins working at her friend Richard Fish’s (Greg Germann) Boston law firm, Cage and Fish. She quickly learns that her long-lost love, Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows) works there. Much to McBeal’s chagrin, she also learns that Billy has a new girlfriend, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith). Rounding out the eccentric cast of McBeal’s coworkers are the wattle-loving John Cage (Peter MacNicol), the vicious Ling Woo (Lisa Liu), the-cold-as-ice Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi) and the sassy office gossip, Elaine Vassal (Jane Krakowski).
With its eclectic combination of courtroom drama, multidimensional female characters, surreal fantasy sequences, physical comedy, voice-over narration, and frank discussions about sex, “Ally McBeal” broke new ground in television. The show also catapulted Vonda Shepard, a performer at the show’s local piano bar, to stardom. Her original song, “Searchin’ My Soul,” was the show’s theme song. Her bluesy cover songs performed in the show became so popular that they were compiled into a soundtrack, “Songs from Ally McBeal,” in 1998. The series ended with McBeal moving back to New York City to be with her long, lost daughter, Maddie (Hayden Panettiere).
“Ally McBeal” was often criticized by feminists. Time Magazine’s cover story on June 29, 1998, entitled “Is Feminism Dead?,” juxtaposed a photo of Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal next to images of Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. The article lambasted the retrograde nature of the show, whose title character cared more about getting married and having a baby, than her career. The show unleashed a national conversation about the role of women in society.
Whether Ally McBeal deserves to be lauded as a feminist role model – or not – is still up for debate. However, the show was groundbreaking in many important ways, including its female-dominated cast and for teaching us that we all needed a personal theme song!