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Thanking a woman who wasn't often thankful

Monday, May 20, 2002

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Arts Writer

To: Ally McBeal
From: Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette arts writer
Re: Cancellation

You've been bumped. No, not dumped (that happens to you all the time, doesn't it?) but bumped from television.

Tonight's episode of "Ally McBeal" at 9 on Fox will be your last. But look at it this way: Cancellation not only means cultural critics will stop using you to make sweeping generalizations about American women, but also you'll be able to wear pants to work and not freeze in those Boston wind chills with those short skirts you wear.

Just wanted to wish you good luck. I know it's been hard surviving these past five years as a high-powered lawyer who can't keep a steady boyfriend. You went through a lot of them, including the guy you had to break up with because you saw him drip salad dressing on his chin and couldn't get the image out of your head. (Yeah, but did he have interesting things to say?)

You also had to work with all those petty, solipsistic colleagues who drove you up the wall (or rather, the stall) whenever they eavesdropped on you in the co-ed bathroom. And you kept having to argue depressing court cases steeped in late '90s sexual politics.

But wait -- I'm focusing on the negatives here. Which, come to think of it, is what you always did. You certainly complained a lot, Ally, and drove yourself into Monday night tizzies asking yourself why your life was so awful. But you know what? That was fine at first.

I really enjoyed, back in 1997, seeing a professional woman on television (the medium that mysteriously lends credence to anything that appears on it) admitting she'd like a meaningful relationship, not apologizing for it, and then trying to figure out why she wasn't getting one.

It was great seeing you punch pillows out of frustration, commiserate with your roommate, Renee, and reflect on the way life is. I hadn't really seen a television character like you.

It wasn't all that essential to figure out what your behavior said about feminism in the '90s. As demonstrated in last week's episode -- involving a mentally ill woman whose personality alternates between Helen (housewife and artist) and Helena (bitchy career woman) -- there are no easy answers to the job vs. family questions.

All that mattered was seeing how you dealt with that guy who left you, or that guy who cared for you too much.

But there's the rub. As the series progressed, it became clear you weren't dealing well at all. There you were, working yourself up again in front of a hack therapist or giving up on another promising relationship because your past was getting in the way. As a friend of mine said recently after watching the show, "I can't believe she still doesn't have a boyfriend. Even I'm luckier than that!"

It wasn't that you were working too hard. (You were always at the bar.) Or that your success intimidated men. (They were impressed by your work.)

Instead, I think it was your expectations that did you in. You confused your basic needs in a relationship (that he be trustworthy, caring) with your needy expectations (that he be tall and buy nice Christmas presents). John Cage, the goofy Mr. Right who was right under your nose all along, was not the type of person you ever expected to marry, so you didn't (unless you marry him tonight).

You may have had the perfect job, the perfect apartment and the perfect roommate, but perfect husbands just don't exist. (Neither do perfect wives, which is why all those picky men on the show also remained single.)

Occasionally a court case or a chance encounter with a stranger led you to be grateful for what you had, not what you were lacking.

But the image of you that will stick in my mind is that of the Ally in an early episode, who flew into a torment in front of Renee one Thanksgiving. I quote you from that episode (which I have on tape), noting your severe irony and that you were kicking cushions as you mocked the idea of Thanksgiving:

"Thanks for having a full life! [kick] Thanks for having somebody to love! [kick] Thanks for getting to get up every day and be a lawyer. [kick] Thanks for not wanting a man, and thank you for not needing one! [kick] Thanks for the millions and millions of awful men that I don't need and I don't want. Thanks for not having my back tickled in so long that I don't even remember what it feels like! Thanks for Thanksgiving and knowing that Christmas comes next!"

Thanks, Ally, for reminding us of what we do have to be thankful for. (And that includes your honesty.)

Caroline Abels can be reached at cabels@post-gazette.com.

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