Wednesday, October 7, 2009

ALLY MCBEAL: THE COMPLETE SERIES (David E. Kelly Productions 1997-2002) Fox Home Video



At the time of its cancellation in 2002, David E. Kelley's Ally McBeal (1997-2002) was one of the most widely revered and heavily criticized television drama/comedies. Influenced by the musical styling of Vonda Shepard (then, a virtual unknown on the music scene), the series was an eclectic and humorous blend of socially retarded misfits thrust together into the mélange of a Boston legal firm presided over by Richard Fish (Greg Germann); whose life pursuit seemed to teeter between accumulating vast amounts of money at any cost, and, a bizarre obsession with women's wattles.

Feminists decried the series for its flighty heroine, Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) as a throwback to the indecisive female of sit/coms in days of old, claiming that Ally was an insult to women in general and working women in particular. This snap analysis however, did not stop audiences from taking to the series with an almost religious following - tuning in each week to see the waifish attorney balance her own emotional psyche against an ever more curious roster of cases. Whether confronting threesome marriages or suing God, Ally tackled her workload with an apprehensive gusto for the law, love and life itself - thereby giving the series its emotional center.

The initial premise for the series stemmed from Ally's struggle to rid herself of the memory of a painful break up with her college lover, Billy Allen Thomas (Gil Bellows) who unfortunately worked at Cage, Fish and Associates and thereby was in constant proximity to Ally - creating sexually charged friction. Ditto for Billy's wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith); who came to work for the firm after losing her own place in litigation at a rival law office.

Ally's roommate, assistant DA, Renee Raddick (Lisa Nicole Carson) was constantly pricking Ally's insecurities in an attempt to illustrate just how insignificant and superficial they were to her, occasionally incurring Ally's wrath and distemper along the way. As a counterbalance, law associate John Cage (Peter McNichol) presented his own roster of emotional insecurities that, at times, seemed to overshadow Ally's and make her appear quite normal by direct comparison.

Also in the cast were ex-Broadway star, Jane Krakowski as the firm's obsessively curious and meddling secretary Elaine Vassal and Dianne Cannon as Richard's much older love interest and voice of reason, 'Whipper'.

Season One of Ally McBeal ultimately pivoted more on Ally's social life than on her caseload - a focus somewhat blunted in Season Two with the addition of Lucy Liu as Ling Woo - a client who eventually became a partner in the firm and develops a genuine distaste for the inner office dynamic of this inbred gathering. Also new to the firm in Season Two was Portia di Rossi as Nell Porter - the sometime object of John Cage's affections.

Reflecting on the series today, one can see its perceptive blend of sex-charged comedy and dramatic scenarios paving the way for HBO's Sex and the City; its light touch and memorable score (made up mostly of updated standards sung by Vonda Shepard in a bar located at the base of Richard's law firm) providing the perfect blend from which David E. Kelley had a veritable field day indulging in various back stories about the absurdities of the law.

Ally's quirky projections, both onto her own state of mind and perceptions of what others were thinking proved charming staples to the series. For example, when Billy confesses to Ally that he has married Georgia since their breakup a sudden flourish of imaginary projectile arrows pierce Ally in the heart. Likewise, when Elaine begins to natter on about her own proficiency, Ally perceives Elaine's head to be inflating like a balloon with her own self importance until Ally pops it.

But perhaps the most memorable of these surreal and imaginary gags was 'the dancing baby' - a computer generated, disco churning and diaper clad, cherub stepping to the tune of 'Hooked on A Feeling'. Symbolic of Ally's own biological ticking clock and sexual frustrations, the dancing baby made frequent appearances, thereby flustering Ally into several flawed love affairs along the way.

When David E. Kelley - who also produced and wrote all of the episodes to Seasons 1, 2 and 3, creatively moved on into developing The Practice for prime time, it was inevitable that a crossover of plots and characters would ensue. But in Season Four the series chose to kill off Gil Bellows character, thereby leaving the show without its sexually charged center. Shortly thereafter Robert Downey Jr. joined the cast as Ally's new love interest Larry Paul.

Regrettably, Downey's private demons prevented his continuation on the series and unfortunately, various attempts thereafter to resurrect the show's unique balance of character driven chemistry did not gel with audiences. As such, the ratings reflected the public's sudden and immediate loss of interest and Ally was canceled.

Due to music licensing issues, Ally McBeal has been absent from DVD since going off the air, save a rather claptrap assembly of six episodes plucked from Season One and repackaged as a compendium by Fox Home Video. But now, Fox gives us the real deal and a fitting tribute with Ally McBeal: The Complete Series - a handsomely bound 32 disc offering that includes all five seasons of this multi-Emmy Award-winning television drama/comedy.

Image quality is generally consistent with a very nicely remastered picture that is mostly sharp with rich, vibrant colors. Season One is presented full frame as originally aired with subsequent seasons all presented in anamorphic widescreen. Occasionally, the image can appear slightly soft or include some edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. Flesh tones are slightly orange, but given the stylized lighting throughout the series, this is probably as intended. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital and remarkably aggressive during Vonda Shepard's vocal arrangements.

Extras include 'Bygone Days'; a retrospective documentary where most of the principal cast reunite to talk about their involvement on the show. There's also the Fox produced TV Special: The Life and Times of Ally McBeal narrated by Bill Maher and Season featurettes on seasons 2, 3 and 5 - plus a tribute entitled 'Goodbye, Ally'. Fox has also graciously included the crossover 'Axe Murderer' episode from season 2 of The Practice in which Ally's character appeared and Vonda Shepard's music video 'I Know Better'. Bottom line: for fans of the show this is Ally McBeal as one would want to remember her - with each episode intact and with enough extras to remind us all how good prime time TV used to be. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Season One: 4.5
Season Two: 5
Season Three: 4.5
Season Four: 4
Season Five: 3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
4

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