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Series / Ally McBeal

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The cast in 1998.

I've been searchin' my soul tonight,
I know there's so much more to life,
Now I know I can shine a light,
To find my way back home.
— From the opening theme "Searching my Soul" by Vonda Shepard

Ally McBeal is a Work Com-slash-Dramedy created by David E. Kelley about a neurotic lawyer and the wacky people she works with. The series ran on Fox from 1997 to 2002, a total of 112 episodes (all but one of which was written or co-written by Kelley) in five seasons. Ally herself was played by Calista Flockhart.

The series went for 'nutty' in a very big way, with preposterous lawsuits (man is fired for having bad comb over and sues, dying boy sues God, etc.), dream and fantasy sequences all over the place, spontaneous dance numbers and the like. Probably best known in its early years for the CGI baby dancing to the "ooga-chaka" chorus from Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling", and in its later seasons for a surfeit of "daring" "lesbian" kisses among various women in the cast. Achieved a kind of brilliance in the legal arguments made by the character John Cage. Achieved retch-inducing horror in its mundane romantic complications.

The show was a ratings success when it aired, and a big enough part of pop culture that Time ran a cover story on it, accusing it of killing feminism. However, after its cancellation it vanished off the public radar quite a bit.

Among sci-fi nerds, it's known for being the subject of a Futurama episode as a show called Single Female Lawyer.

In 2021, reports emerged of a limited-series revival being attempted.

This show provides examples of:

  • A Love to Dismember: One client is charged with murder, accused of chopping off his wife's hand with a chainsaw and causing her a heart attack. He claims she had a heart attack first, and then he cut it off after her death to have a thing to remember her by. He's pronounced not guilty, and he wonders whether he could ask to have the hand back. Cage and Fish had mostly weirdo clients.
  • Angry Dance: Lampshaded when John gets furious at Nelle for being a snobby Rich Bitch. He dances frantically in his office and Richard comes in. He points out to John that it's his Angry Dance. John replies that HE'S ANGRY!
  • Ascended Meme: The dancing baby is one of the earliest internet memes.
  • Awkward First Sleepover: One episode sees Ally fretting over her daughter Maddie's first slumber party, owing to her own bad experiences with other girls when she was growing up.
  • Bait-and-Switch Credits: The opening promised a smiling and happy woman most of the time, downplaying the show's dramatic moments.
  • Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults: A common Running Gag due to the bathrooms being unisex, so characters overhear conversations all the time.
    • There was one time Ally looks under the door of the stalls before she starts, only to find later that Elaine put her legs up.
    • One episode has Georgia dragging Billy in for a talk, checking under the stalls. As soon as their fight is done, a toilet flushes and Ally exits a stall, clearly lying about having pulled her legs up.
    • John even built himself a secret room behind one of the stalls! Sure, he used it just to have a place to think about stuff by himself, but that still doesn't change the fact that the compartment would have been some serious lawsuit-material if a client or coworker ever sat in that stall while he got out.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: Richard uses this potential scenario to argue before the judge that the Supreme Court's ruling that the President - and by default a Congressman like his client - could be sued while in office was a bad ruling:
    Richard: Don't tell me I can't cripple a Congressman's ability to do his work! With today's media? It's not like they go out and check the facts! I could say something about you having sex with a goat - totally untrue, so what! All I gotta do is say it, Newsweek will print it and boom, your whole docket becomes spin control!
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: In season 1 (Cro Magnon), Ally and Renee attend a sculpting class featuring Glenn, a well-endowed model, much to their awe, with Renne later joking she doesn't have enough clay to depict it on a proper scale. Ally briefly dates him afterwards. And the "dating" part only comes after she is slut-shamed by Billy and called out by Glenn (the model) himself for only being interested by the latter's, well, asset, not the man himself.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Ling's argument in a Chinese restaurant, although it's still funnier when you have no idea what's being said.
  • Birthday Hater: Ally was unable to appreciate her friends' plans for her birthday parties and couldn't even civilly accept their birthday wishes. She hated getting older without a husband in sight and without a prospect of having babies soon. However, her friends could have been handling the issue differently. Why inflict parties on her when she hates them?
  • Breast Expansion: One of the first Imagine Spots in the show is of Ally lamenting her small breasts and imaging them growing until they snapped the bra straps.
  • Bouquet Toss: One episode has the perpetually-single-and-looking Ally fight for the bouquet with other bridesmaids. She's so embarrassed that she swears not to attend any more weddings. She breaks her promise in the same episode because one of her clients made her come to her wedding and she didn't have the heart to refuse, and Ally has to dance in the street wearing her pajamas, which was a bet/dare/"punishment" agreement with her roommate Renée.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer:
    • A whole office full of them, and they are literally lawyers. All are very weird, but their firm hardly ever loses the case.
    • Elaine is a Bunny-Ears secretary. She's one of the most efficient and capable secretaries in TV history; in fact, the series states that she has so much free time on her hands (which she often uses to invent things) because she's supremely good at what she does.
  • Bouquet Toss: Ally fights for the bouquet with other bridesmaids in one episode. She's so embarrassed with her behaviour that she swears not to attend any more weddings. She breaks her promise in the same episode because one of her clients made her come to her wedding and she couldn't refuse, and Ally has to dance in the street wearing her pyjamas which was a bet/dare/"punishment" agreement with Renée.
  • Cannot Tell a Joke: Ally is mortified when she tells the patrons at her favorite bar a risque joke and they react with disgust.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Ally's Imagine Spots often take place in her dreams, and she almost always wakes up like a catapult when they end. In one episode, she gets two of these in a row (it was Dream Within a Dream), then a third one happens to a supporting character (so it was a dream within a dream within somebody else's person's dream!)
  • Cat Fight: Renee and Elaine in episode "Turning thirty". On a stage during a party, complete with meowing sounds at the end.
  • Cathartic Chores: In "It's My Party", Billy tells Ally off for being selfish and inconsiderate. She hides in her kitchen and keeps preparing a swan made of fruits. She probably wanted to prepare it anyway, but she keeps fiddling with it on purpose.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Renee. It wasn't explained why she and Ally suddenly were not roommates or what happened to her law firm.
  • Clark Kent Outfit: John is more well-built and masculine than his weedy look and persona would suggest.
  • Comical Overreacting
    Judge: Mr. Handy, it would be a grave mistake to insult Elizabeth Taylor in my courtroom.
    • John holding a funeral when his frog is accidentally killed is played for laughs.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • In "The Blame Game", the judge in charge of trial of the week greets the defendant attorney Ally, asking how her potato chips hunt goes. The same judge in "One Hundred Tears Away" (8 episodes back) was part of the board considering revoking Ally's lawyer licence (last straw being an alledged assault on a supermarket customer who at first only started arguing over a can of chips).
    • In episode 5 of season 2, Ally gets stuck with a case without time to prepare, and it's her client's fault, so a judge leaves no room for protest. What judge does do is saying that there are also good news: Ally can dress however she likes. Makes sense in connection with previous episode, in which a different judge cost Ally a night in jail for refusing to meet demands of wearing skirt longer than her mini- in court.
  • Courtroom Antics: Due to the show being a Dramedy with a cast of Bunny-Ears Lawyer, several scenes in the courtrooms are Played for Laughs, often with the case being "won" by a Refuge in Audacity argument.
  • Cousin Oliver: The daughter Ally had years before the series began tracks her down and moves in with her in the final season. Does this change Miss McBeal's worldview? Does it heck.
  • Crossover: Season 1 had one with The Practice. Strangely, some characters are actually seen watching the famous "head in a bag!" scene later.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Ally and John tend to often be emphatic about their clients' troubles and determined to help, but this happens at least once to every member of the cast.
  • Death Glare: Ling gives these frequently.
  • Dream Intro: In "The Blame Game" (season 1 ep. 17, if pilot is ep. 1), the opening has eponymous young lawyer and her colleague Georgia (who is also Ally's ex's wife) on a plane exchanging usual pleasantries, when the plane starts to shake and apparently rapidly crashes. It being a dream is revealed by the cut to Ally's waking up in panic. Dialogues with a trusted friend reveal that although Ally could have been influenced by the plane crash case they work on, there is also that fact that offscreen part of the dream included decapitation of Georgia and miraculous survival of Ally.
  • Everyone Has Standards: When Georgia attempted to sue the firm for ruining her marriage, none other than Ling said "Oh please, that's bogus even for me!"
    • During that same trial Billy, who by then had become a totally chauvinistic idiot, nevertheless still shows he genuinely loves and respects Georgia by exclaiming to John "that's enough!" when he feels the latter is bullying her while cross-examining her.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Nelle isn't exactly loved, but she becomes sort of a queen bee of the place and her hair is frequently mentioned as a key aspect to her attractiveness. The previous one (albeit a lot nicer) was Georgia, also a blonde - who explicitly hated Nelle partly because the latter 'out-blonded' her.
  • Fond Memories That Could Have Been: Billy confessed his love for Ally just moments before he died. He hallucinated and believed they were married and had kids together.
  • Freudian Slip: Many, many characters many, many times. Ally sometimes slips into a Freudian Slippery Slope when flustered.
  • Girl on Girl Is Hot: How Richard thinks about lesbians kissing.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: A big part of the episode "Car Wash". The bride Risa is portrayed as a Sympathetic Adulterer who has a final fling a few days before her wedding because her fiancé is awful in bed and she does plan to devote herself only to him after they marry. Later she finds he also cheated on her, but she forgives him at first on the logic that she did it too... until she learns he was actually a Sex God to the women he slept with, causing her to conclude that if he was lousy in bed with her then it means he doesn't truly care for her and is only in the marriage for the money. Risa promptly calls off the wedding.
  • Hallucinations: Ally has a lot of Imagine Spots per episode. One episode even has her bonding with a client who got fired for seeing a unicorn in the office.
  • Head Desk: At one point, Ally makes her head meet desk a few times, saying "I have my health" every time.
  • Hello, Attorney!: Found in all of David E. Kelley's legal shows, but probably reaches its apotheosis here. The female attorneys are dismayed to learn that this is actually a central part of the firm's business strategy... as highlighted on their official PR material.
  • Imagine Spot: Part of the show's Signature Style. Ally has them on regular basis. It becomes a problem when she cannot distinguish them from reality. For example, one episode she kept seeing a famous singer, and she nearly attacked a real one who by chance appeared in their favourite bar. And she kicks a child attorney in the back because she thought she was hallucinating about her "dancing baby"
  • In-Series Nickname: In spades. John Cage is "The Biscuit", Nelle Porter is called "Sub-zero", Mark Albert is "The Closer", and one Elaine's friend and former employee is called "Peanut".
  • Lampshade Hanging: The employees of Cage&Fish regularly hang out at the bar below the office, even during the day between work or at nights before a hearing. This is shaded upon in Season 2:
Nell: We're still in trial. We should be home preparing.
Richard: Oh, come on. That would be like real life.
  • Leg Focus: All the female regulars, but Ally in particular is a poster child for the trope. In one episode, a judge sent her to jail for disrespecting him because she refused to give up her very short mini-skirt.
  • Let's Wait Awhile: Played for Laughs. Ling puts off having sex with Richard because she believes she's so amazing at sex he won't want to do anything else with her after having a taste of it. She claims it ruined all her other relationships.
    Ling: I'm amazing in bed! I'm not proud, but I've ruined lives. I can't take men saying there's nobody after me. I've tried everything. Half-speed, slow. It's always the best sex he's ever had. Suddenly, no talking, movies, dinner. It's sex, sex, sex!
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Nell would occasionally play this up. She usually wears her hair in a professional bun, but occasionally she lets her long, platinum blond hair down, causing everyone in the scene to gape in adoration.
  • Licensed Sexist: Richard. Billy tries it later, but no one is impressed.
  • Likes Older Women: Richard, part of it being attracted to a 'wattle' on their necks. He's also attracted to young women, though.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compared to David E. Kelley's other courtroom drama The Practice.
  • Littlest Cancer Patient: He decides he wants to sue God.
  • Local Hangout: The Martini Bar, home of Vonda Shepard and the Dancing Twins.
  • Lousy Lovers Are Losers: In "Car Wash", The "Case of The Week" has a family priest rescinding his offer to perform the ceremony after he caught the bride Risa having sex with someone other than her fiancé. Risa explains her husband-to-be is terrible in bed and she wanted one last chance at exciting, invigorating sex before becoming a faithful and unsatisfied wife. The trope looks to be Subverted at first because Risa's willing to marry the man even knowing he's a lousy lover, but then it turns into a Double Subversion when it's revealed Ally actually knows the groom because she slept with him, and found him the best sex of her life. This leads Risa and Ally to conclude that if he was lousy at sex with Risa then it means he doesn't truly care for her and is only in the marriage for the money. Risa promptly calls off the wedding.
  • Mad at a Dream: One episode started with Ally waking up angry with Larry because she had a dream where he dumped her.
  • Metaphorical Marriage: Cindy McCauliff (played by Lisa Edelstein) is a transgender woman. She is still legally a man (much is made of her having a penis) and later symbolically marries another guy. Lawyer Richard Fish officiates. Interesting choice, because in Cindy's story arch, Richard was established as particularly homophobic and misogynistic.
  • Minor Flaw, Major Breakup: Ally would often dump a guy after one awkward date over a minor flaw. One guy could not eat properly and put salad on his face, or once a guy had Annoying Laugh.
  • Musical Episode: The Season Finale for season 3 "Ally McBeal: The Musical, Almost" has several song numbers sung by the cast.
  • Office Romance:
    • Ally once said she'd never date a fellow lawyer, but she was not completely over her colleague Billy, her ex-boyfriend and high-school/college sweetheart. Billy and Ally have a lot of sexual chemistry and love tension between them.
    • Billy and his wife Georgia both work for the same law firm Cage & Fish.
    • Ling dates Richard Fish, one of the two bosses. She was at first their regular client and later got hired to work with them as a lawyer. It has the implied power tension, but there was never serious ethical drama explored. Ling however makes it clear several times that she would like to be treated as the queen of the office because she dates the company's king.
    • John Cage is one of the two senior partners and he has a relationship with their newly-hired litigator Nelle Porter. They lasted quite long but ultimately they broke up. It was a case of Pitbull Dates Puppy, Nelle being a tough, icy woman and John a dorky, sweet man.
  • Over-the-Top Christmas Decorations: Ally loves Christmas, but her boyfriend Larry's not too keen. Ally pesters him to decorate his office a bit and he gets piles and piles of illuminated Christmas stuff and mechanized reindeer. We later find out he doesn't like Christmas and other holidays because he has a small son, and Larry misses him even more during holidays.
  • Pet the Dog: Ling, despite her abrasive personality and wildly offensive comments, likes to volunteer at an old folks home.
  • Prefers the Illusion: One of the clients at Ally's firm is a sad, lonely, but very wealthy spinster. She has sequential dreams of a life where she met a man, got married, and raised a happy family. She is petitioning the court to put her in a chemically induced coma so she can sleep forever and live the life where she's actually happy.
  • Protagonist Title: The series is named after The Protagonist, Ally.
  • "Psycho" Strings: The famous chord plays when Georgia shows up at Ally's apartment in the "Pilot" to talk about Bill.
  • Ratings Stunt: The good old 90s lesbian kiss stunt.
  • Ready for Lovemaking: In the "These Are the Days" episode, Georgia convinces Billy into having Sex at Work by showing up naked at his office (Toplessness from the Back and Scenery Censor keep her covered up).
  • Really Gets Around: Elaine or so she claims.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Ling convinces a boy with leukemia that he can sue God. Well, actually his church so he can get the money for treatment. He wins, then promptly dies.
  • Scenery Censor: When Georgia is naked in Billy's office in "These Are the Days", her breasts are obscured by a conveniently placed lamp.
  • Scooby Stack: When Ally is breaking up with Larry, the entire office spy on her and try to learn the latest gossip or see how she's coping. At one point, they all (minus Richard who is in LA) stick their heads in her door and immediately pull them out when Ally notices them.
  • Sexy Santa Dress: Ally wears a short red Santa dress with white lining while singing "Santa Baby" in one of the Christmas episodes. Very hot indeed.
  • Sexy Surfacing Shot In "The Getaway", Richard and John are introduced to Jane Wilco while she's climbing out of the pool in a red bikini in slow-mo while music plays in the background while they're both Eating the Eye Candy.
  • Sleeps with Everyone but You: Elaine is notorious for her oozing sexuality and flirting with every man around. She is sued by her friend nicknamed Peanut who feels she intentionally humiliated him. Eventually his issues are revealed — he's in love with her and thinks everyone is her type but him. They manage to patch things up and he drops the lawsuit, though she doesn't like him back in that way. Interestingly, later seasons imply Elaine doesn't sleep around and has problems finding a relationship.
  • Softer and Slower Cover: The show regularly features various famous songs redone by Vonda Shephard in a slower, quieter style. For example, Bing Crosby's "Swing On A Star" was covered with a slower tempo and emphasis on the "Pig" part of the song.
  • Standard Office Setting: It is set in a Boston law firm Cage and Fish. Most people have their own office and lots of the episodes happened in meeting rooms or in the courtroom. Quite legendary is their unisex bathroom. People who work for Cage and Fish frequent an idealized bar that is in the same building as their office.
  • Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss: Thrice, always Ally with someone.
    • Elaine once took Ally by surprise and starting kissing her in order to pretend Ally is gay and her girlfriend. Ally's date guy was a douche who would not take a hint to leave. He didn't buy it.
    • Ally tries Elaine's bit on a guy who is a huge nutbag and loser who becomes convinced Ally and him are soul mates. Ally asks Georgia to do it and she obliges. The guy takes the bait and tells Ally there are ways to be cured.
    • Ally and Ling once become fascinated with each other and try kissing in a very long scene. They agree it was good, but it missed one thing — a penis.
  • Tinkle in the Eye: When Elaine found an abandoned baby boy and wanted to adopt him, he tinkled in the eyes of nearly everybody, mainly Ling and Nelle. It made Elaine invent protective goggles.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: Ally's therapist advises her to think of a song she can sing to make herself feel better. She knows "this one song" and starts to sing it. It happens to be the show's theme song. The therapist cuts her off before she even reaches the first chorus and tells her it's an absolutely terrible song.
  • Two First Names: Larry Paul, Ally's main love interest in Season 4, as are lawyers Mark Albert and Wilson Jade.
  • Vacation Episode: "The Getaway" is A Day in the Limelight where Richard and John travel to Los Angelos for a vacation for a few days. They still get in Courtroom Antics there when Richard gets in trouble with the law.
  • Vagina Dentata: In one episode, the female regulars are wondering aloud about Ling's latest lawsuit, and Elaine comments "Maybe her gynaecologist pulled the wrong tooth".
  • Working with the Ex: Ally starts a new job in the first episode only to find her college sweetheart Billy is already working there. And he's Happily Married.


Angry Dance

He can explain that... He's ANGRY.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / AngryDance

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