When David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal went off the air in May 2002, it marked the end of what was the turn of the century’s quintessential feminist workplace comedy. Like Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) and Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) before her, Ally (played by the winsome Calista Flockhart) was a character yet again asking whether women could indeed have it all. But what set the series apart from its predecessors were its fantastical elements: Even as it tackled real-life issues of workplace discrimination—the series opens with Ally suing her former employers after they refuse to do something about a male colleague who gropes her—Ally McBeal shied away from any sense of didactic realism. In fact, despite its law firm setting, a Kelley staple, the hour-long show resembled a musical more than any other genre.
The premise and promise of musical comedy is to vocalize feelings in song that would otherwise be kept private. Solos and showstoppers alike give us access to characters’ inner monologues during moments where outsized emotions warrant an excess of expression. Ally McBeal’s first episode feels designed to evoke that same feeling. Flockhart may not be on a stage or even belting out a tune, but framed as she is by window, lost in thought, audiences are encouraged to think of the song we’re listening to (Vonda Shepard’s “Neighborhood”) as insight into Ally’s inner monologue. The first two lines of Shepard’s song — “Here’s a photo I’ve been looking for / It’s a picture of the boy next door” — run straight into Flockhart’s opening voiceover, which is, not coincidentally, about the boy next door she once loved and later lost. Ally is talking about Billy (Gil Bellows), the ex-boyfriend from college she’ll soon learn is a lawyer in her new firm. The next two lines of Shepard’s song (“And I loved him more than words could say / Never knew it ‘til he moved away”) could have easily subbed in for the story Ally tells us. There’s a bluntness to the way Kelley’s show immediately utilizes its music. Its cues are almost always too obvious, as if it were trying to be a jukebox musical without billing itself as such.
The pilot episode’s prefatory scene ends with Ally telling us, “So here I am, the victim of my own choices. And I’m just starting.” The dialogue feeds right into the series’ opening credits, which were also scored by Shepard, who became the musical voice of the show for its five-season run. The show’s theme song is aptly titled “Searchin’ My Soul,” and it all but functions as a distillation of the female protagonist:
I’ve been down this road walkin’ the line
That’s painted by pride
And I have made mistakes in my life
That I just can’t hide
These moments of self-aware music cues were an integral part of Ally McBeal. Peter MacNicol’s character, the brilliant if misanthropic lawyer John Cage, for example, often turned to Barry White tunes for their confidence-boosting powers. It’s a character trait that even led to the famed musician guest starring as himself on the show on three separate occasions. Not one to waste its Broadway-caliber talent, the show frequently found ways to use Jane Krakowski’s singing and dancing skills. As the happy-go-lucky secretary who always harbored fantasies of making it as a stage actress, Krakowski got to sing the iconic A Chorus Line song “The Music and the Mirror” in a Season Five episode that summed up Elaine’s own failed dreams. “All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,” she sings at an audition, “And the chance to dance.” That’s to say nothing of Ally’s romantic partners: She got to date a doctor portrayed by Rent’s Jesse L. Martin; a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr., as a lawyer who could sing a mean Joni Mitchell cover; went to a prom with a character played by Josh Groban; and even got to date Jon Bon Jovi (playing a blue collar guy who just happens to look like a rock star) in the show’s final season.
The show even acknowledged its debt to the musical genre in the aptly titled Season Three episode, “Ally McBeal: The Musical, Almost.” Unlike other musical episodes (see: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More with Feeling” and Scrubs’ “My Musical”) Ally McBeal’s almost-musical didn’t really look much different than any other episode. Sure, its opening credits paid tribute to the many musical moments the show had already featured in between lawsuits, workplace romances and dancing CGI baby fantasies, and also featured the entire cast joyfully singing “Searchin’ My Soul” at the downstairs bar where you could glimpse Vonda Shepard from episode to episode. But when it came to the structure and feel of the episode itself, you couldn’t really tell it apart from any other installment of Ally McBeal.
There was no explanation for why, suddenly, a rendition of Randy Newman’s “The Blues” by Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson) at the bar cut to scenes of Nelle (Portia de Rossi) singing its lyrics to explain how depressed she is, or why a full-blown Elaine number of “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down” (including Cabaret-style choreography) cuts to John Cage singing his heart out while showcasing some awkward dance moves. Or why these moments of characters bursting into song—at a stressful dinner with her parents, Ally witnesses the entire restaurant serenading her with Newman’s “Relax, Enjoy Yourself”—are shown to be mere extensions of the show’s absurdist insights into Ally’s subconscious.
Much like Ally’s other hallucinations, which became a staple of the show (see: the aforementioned CGI baby), the use of diegetic music to advance the plot and comment on the action keyed into what made Kelley’s series so groundbreaking. Ally McBeal embraced the oft-shamed gush of emotion that we associate with female-driven properties. What made the skinny, short skirt-wearing lawyer such a contested feminist protagonist was her penchant for following her heart. Her melodramatic storylines about ex-boyfriends and her emotional outbursts in court made her a target for criticisms that claimed she was yet another image of women as flaky professionals unable to keep their feelings in check. But this was also what made Ally McBeal such a formally fascinating show. In giving us access to Ally’s view of the world, where we’d actually see her heart being pierced by arrows or witness her dreamed-up erotic encounters with the men around her, the show found a way to literalize inner turmoil in increasingly absurd yet earnest ways. In that, it borrowed the central conceit of the musical genre, which compels characters not to be ashamed of what they’re feeling; to sing it out instead, no matter how silly, or sad, or embarrassing it might sound. For attentive listeners, Shepard makes sure you remember this every time Ally McBeal begins. “Oh I believe I am ready for what love has to bring, got myself together now I’m ready to sing,” she sings in “Searchin’ My Soul.” Kelley’s characters heed her imperative to the letter.
Manuel Betancourt is a New York-based writer who has contributed to Film Comment, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic and Esquire.