Is Ally McBeal a Thing of Beauty?: An Interview with Greg M. Smith (Part Two)

A striking feature of Ally McBeal was the integration of musical numbers into what was essentially a dramatic television series. What functions do these numbers play in the series? Why was Ally successful in this approach when other series -- Cop Rocks or Viva Laughlin come to mind -- have failed in adopting a similar mix of genres?

Music structures the Ally universe. The show has its own "Greek chorus" -- bar singer Vonda Shepard -- who comments on the action, gives the characters advice, and ties the episode's themes together. As you would expect in a show that is concerned with making a long argument, music on Ally is used to persuade. The characters use music in court, they argue using it. Music on Ally is practical. Characters use it backstage to give themselves the strength to perform in public, as when John Cage invokes Barry White to boost his sexual confidence.

Ally insists that amateur musical performance is crucial to making a community. Performing in the bar is a ritual every character must do to prove they belong. Musical performance gives us yet another way to get a glimpse of what's going on inside a character. In some cases (such as Robert Downey's character), the central insight we gain is presented through music.

And yet it's not a musical like Cop Rock and Viva Laughlin (with the exception of one episode entitled "Ally McBeal, The Musical... Almost," an interesting failure that helped reveal exactly how Ally differs from the musical form). Characters don't burst into song unless they're doing it in a naturalistic setting (performing in the bar, sitting at the piano at home) or in fantasy sequences (more like The Singing Detective). In an era when most of us simply listen to professionals performing music, Ally accentuates the amateur performer integrating music into our everyday life.

(Ally's innovative use of music is actually the reason you can only purchase a limited number of episodes on DVD. Ally McBeal began in 1997, long before anyone envisioned that you could sell broadcast TV on DVD, and so the producers purchased only broadcast rights for the music. Now that the world has changed, it's a monstrous task to try to clear the rights for 3-5 songs per episode for 111 episodes.)

One of the scenes most people will remember from the series was the vision of the dancing baby. Can you place that moment into context for us?

The dancing baby is actually a very early instance of viral video. It circulated on the internet at a time when the social network for distributing short video was much less developed and high-speed connection was less widespread. It did come to the attention of the special effects people working on Ally, who incorporated it as one of Ally's numerous hallucinations. Unlike viral video today, most people encountered the dancing baby on television first, not online, although it's becoming more common for cable television shows to feature the "best of" YouTube, sending larger numbers viewers to these popular videos.

Although the dancing baby is Ally's most famous use of special effects, it initially seems to be a bit of a misstep. It appears in the first two seasons, then disappears until Ally's last season. But on viewing the series as a whole, the dancing baby becomes an elegant hint of the series's endgame. Through most of the early part of the show, Ally seems obsessed with finding "the one," her ultimate romantic partner. But the universe has a way of giving us a different answer than the one we expect. Instead of finding a man, Ally is given fulfillment in the form of a child. It becomes clear that Ally McBeal has all along been about the notion of the family, as embodied early on by the dancing baby.

This is an example of the kinds of meanings that become apparent once you look at a series as a whole. If a television show can present a long-running argument, then it's important to listen to the entire argument, not just part of it. Many scholars studying television will deal with only a few episodes or a single season (I've done some of this myself). But there are consequences for doing this: you limit your readings, as the dancing baby example shows.

In addition, if we assume that it's no problem to extrapolate from a few episodes to the series as a whole, that's another way we denigrate TV. Imagine a critic writing about a novel without reading the whole thing! If we assume that the series as a whole won't tell us anything that a few episodes will, then we're saying once more that television isn't complicated.

Critics of the series talked about Ally as self absorbed. How is that criticism linked to the series's interest in subjective experience?

Self-absorbed? Don't you mean whiny, narcissistic, selfish, whimpering, simpering? Other than revulsion at Calista Flockhart's thin body, this is the primary negative knee-jerk response to Ally. And Ally invites this reading because it creates a universe remarkably centered on its protagonist and her values. Everything (including its music, the special effects, the hallucinations) is focused on its eccentric title character, unlike many series that provide us with a safe, "normal" central character to view its oddballs. There's no avoiding the oddball center of Ally, and so the series takes quite a chance at annoying its audience in giving us an up-close-and-personal portrait of an eccentric.

Here's one place to demonstrate how formal/aesthetic analysis can help us see more deeply into the series. Ally uses a remarkable array of formal devices to show us what's going on inside its central character: hallucinations, music, voiceover, special effects, and more. We primarily hear about Ally's self-doubt in these private moments, and so it's easy to think of her as whiny simply because we get so much access to these thoughts. However, this makes it easy to overlook the way that Ally kicks ass in public. In private, she may express doubt; in public, she's a second-wave feminist dream: a highly competent lawyer who will not compromise on her choice for a romantic partner.

If we didn't have access to these private moments through subjective devices, Ally might seem a lot more like Buffy (who started in the same year). Both kick ass in their own public arenas (graveyards and courtrooms), and both whine in private about their fate (how tough it is to be the slayer, how difficult it is to find a lover). And yet how differently we view these two portraits of women. Looking at formal devices like voiceovers and hallucinations helps restore a bit of the balance to our initial appraisals.

If I may dabble in the cultural for a second, I fear that our appraisal of "whininess" may be strongly related to gender. Meredith Gray on Gray's Anatomy (a character who uses voiceover as much as Ally does) is similarly criticized for her self-absorption, but J.D. on Scrubs is considered charmingly self-deprecating when he turns to fantasies and hallucinations of self-doubt. It may be impossible (or at least, unadvisable) to separate culture from aesthetics, but hopefully my work on TV's aesthetics in Ally demonstrates that formal analysis can provide insights that a purely cultural studies approach cannot.

What do you see as the lasting impact of this series on American television? What contemporary series draw most heavily on its innovations?

Ally widened television's capabilities for giving us subjective access into characters. Earlier precursors such as Dream On, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and Herman's Head experimented with subjective access, but Ally's popularity and its bravura use of formal devices opened the floodgates. In addition to shows I've already mentioned (Gray's Anatomy, Scrubs), Ally's other heirs include How I Met Your Mother and Pushing Daisies, shows that constantly interrupt their narratives to show us their characters memories, fantasies, and hallucinations. Special effects may be Ally's most lasting legacy. Before Ally, digital effects were used for big spectacle but rarely to convey interior states.

Not all of Ally's innovations may bear fruit, and so Ally is also interesting as a portrait of the road not taken. I doubt that we will see a mainstream television program use music so centrally in creating the fabric of the universe. We may never see an ensemble show whose world is so warped around the central character's values, because to do so risks alienating too many people. Ally McBeal was an extraordinary mainstream experiment in using serial narrative and formal devices to give us a portrait of an eccentric.