I watched the pilot of David E. Kelley’s new legal series Harry’s Law last week (Mondays, 10 p.m. on NBC).  Kathy Bates plays Harriet Korn, a burned out patent attorney who is fired from her firm because she has lost interest in her job to the point of giving up any pretense of engagement.

Almost immediately, she ends up in the hospital emergency room twice – once when a jumper hits her on his way down and foils his suicide attempt without seriously injuring her and again when a car driven by a bold, young attorney hits her.    She takes the first on as a client and the second on as an associate and opens a law office in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Cincinnati.

How is it?  Too soon to tell, but I love Kathy Bates, so I guess I’ll give it a try.  Really, though, the series premiere has me thinking about an earlier series created by Kelley.  Here’s a reprise of a commentary I wrote about Ally McBeal at the end of its television run.  I find that I still feel pretty much the same about the show.  Despite its quirkiness and polish, the series troubled me routinely.

WFDD Commentary From 2002

The final episode of Ally McBeal aired on Fox Monday night…and the show went off the air pretty much as it arrived with Ally not sure where she’s going or where she’s been but consistently self-absorbed and teary-eyed because she doesn’t have the right boyfriend.  I have a problem with this, and that’s because Ally McBeal—like all forms of public discourse—is more than “just” a TV show.

Do you remember that bold TIME magazine cover with a row of floating headshots of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem in black and white against a black background and Ally McBeal, the only fictive character of the group, in color hovering over the caption “Is Feminism Dead?”  It is the suggestion of the magazine cover that yes, we have entered a postfeminist age where substantive issues like…say…social justice have been replaced by endless public preoccupation with the private, and more often than not, the superficial.

I’m certainly not one to discount the importance of our interior lives and personal relationships, but shows like Ally McBeal and Sex in the City seem to me part of a larger trend toward declaring the women’s movement passé, nevermind that pay equity, universal health coverage, affordable and available child and elder care, and the right to self-determination—all foundational pieces feminists have worked to establish—are as relevant and unresolved today as ever before.  On TV, however, these waiflike characters teetering on stiletto heels and topped by meticulously tousled hairstyles seem to get indignant over little else but the right to wear a micro-mini skirt and skimpy top to work without losing the respect of their colleagues.

What makes me indignant is that this passes for mere entertainment.  After the TIME cover created a hoopla, the creator of Ally McBeal, David Kelley, and the actor who played Ally, Callista Flockhart, appeared widely in the media talking about how the show was not making a political statement—it was just a TV show.  I find that folks in the entertainment industry frequently resort to this appeal when they don’t want to acknowledge the implications of their work amid public questioning.

I wait impatiently for the day…and will undoubtedly be waiting for a long time… when a significant number of writers and directors and producers recognize that all stories convey sets of values.  I’m talking about motion pictures, television shows, and even commercials.  They’re all value-laden, not only in terms of what’s included in the text, but what’s omitted from it, and from the larger social context.  Sometimes the values are consistent and explicit, more often they are implicit and even conflicting.  But always they are political.

Why do I care about Ally McBeal?  Because the public narratives we encounter overlap with the personal narratives we construct in our daily lives—in other words, stories we hear over and over again shape the way we perceive the possibilities and limitations we set for our own lives.  Besides, I happen to believe that social justice is more important in the scheme of things than being able to wear a tank top to the office.




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