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This Woman Is:

1. A '90s Herione; 2. A Retro Ditz; Choose One (If You Can)

March 08, 1998|Carla Hall | Carla Hall is a Times staff writer

She went to Harvard Law School, works at a tony boutique law firm in Boston and still manages to get to her sculpting class the night before a big day in court. She has captivated a jury with her closing arguments, but she appalled a cathedral full of people with an impromptu Henny Youngman-esque eulogy at the funeral of one of her law professors.

With the precision of a surgical strike, she once tripped a woman in a supermarket who was rude to her; and with the wobbliness of a toddler, she once rose from her seat and tumbled to the floor in front of one of her law firm colleagues who happens to be her ex-boyfriend (still loves him) and his lawyer bombshell wife (hates her but kind of likes her too).

She's been known to enjoy a sexual fling with a great-looking guy (most memorably, the well-endowed himbo model in the sculpting class) but hallucinates a dancing baby, the apparent manifestation of her 27-year-old biological clock. She has committed the transgression of sleeping with a married man, but she has never, judging by the reed-thin looks of her, sinfully overeaten so much as one fat-free Entenmann's coffeecake.

She is real and not even close. But mostly, she is the centerpiece of her eponymous television show, "Ally McBeal"--deftly played by Calista Flockhart, six years Ally's senior and a respected New York stage actress--and the newest lightning rod for all the prickly issues of romance, power, work and how to dress in the office. Like no other recent television character, she has endeared herself to some and infuriated other viewers.

Depending on who's watching, she's smart, refreshingly real and funny, or whiny, ditsy and verging on unprofessional. She is annoyingly waif-like, fiddles with her hair as incessantly as a high schooler and, when caught in an awkward moment (constantly), stammers so much you want to slap her.

"To me, she seems like an anorexic, self-indulgent little munchkin," says Elaine Showalter, a Princeton professor of English and a feminist literary critic who did a stint as a television critic for People magazine a few years ago. "I had a big fight with some male friends who absolutely adored her. She is the little shiksa baby dream goddess."

Incidentally, Showalter confesses that her 31-year-old daughter, who works in Washington as a speech writer, really likes the show.

Hairdresser Nicole Alpert finds Ally's neuroses endearing.

"It's nice to see a woman portrayed as bright, been to law school, passed the bar, and see her being insecure," says Alpert, 32, who listens all day to her clients' neurotic concerns. "That's reassuring to someone like me who didn't finish high school and went to beauty school."

But whether Ally grates or ingratiates, the series is drawing viewers. The hourlong show--which creator David E. Kelley considers a comedy--premiered in September on Fox on Monday nights at 9 p.m., quickly ascending from promising fledgling status to the newest hit with buzz. The show is already renewed for next season and is being honored Monday at the Museum of Television & Radio's 15th annual Television Festival.

It also has garnered a raft of magazine stories, fueled a Fox Web site with people's comments, inspired a regular Monday night viewing party at the popular Legal Seafoods in Boston ("Ally's" setting) and earned two Golden Globe awards--best comedy and best actress in a comedy. When Flockhart won her Golden Globe, she got up from her table at the ceremony and, in a perfect Ally moment, started toward the stage in the wrong direction, mugged in confusion for the camera, then finally found her way to the podium.

The otherworldly, computer-generated dancing baby has been avidly passed around by e-mail. That's how Nicole Alpert's father, Hollywood publicist David Kramer, found out about the show. A friend e-mailed him the dancing baby and he decided to tune in. He found Ally appealing--until he didn't.

"As a younger man, I was very attracted to crazy women," says Kramer. "I think many men are. And Ally McBeal is a crazy woman."

The informal consensus seems to be that men are adoring Ally McBeal and her wacky, cryptic manner. But Stanford graduate student John Perry says to count him out of the fan club. Perry says he was at a dinner party recently where debate over "Ally McBeal" was the conversation du jour.

"Everyone trashed it except one woman," he reports. "Most of them, like me, had started out liking it. I feel like she's such a bundle of uninteresting neuroses. A little goes a long way. I can't make it through a whole episode."

It may be that she's the kind of character you love to trash. She's maddening but funny.

In the pantheon of television heroines who are career women, Ally is a creation unto herself--perhaps not as retro as some real-life late-'90s professional women might fear but more a fin de siecle result of all the women who have come before her.

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