Frankly, watching Calista Flockhart drink a cup of cappuccino isn’t quite the steamy erotic spectacle you’d expect. There are no blissful sighs. No orgasmic head rolls. No soft-focus close-ups of creamy foam clinging to her pouty, voluptuous lips.
“I do love cappuccino,” the actress offers demurely. “But I’m not that much like my character.”
Flockhart’s character, of course, is the hapless heroine of Ally McBeal, Fox’s quirky new, Golden Globe-winning series about a young Bean Town attorney who works alongside her still-interested ex-boyfriend (and his wary new wife), wears leggy minis to court, suffers from a fantastically vivid inner life, and — in one memorable episode — demonstrates a coffee-sipping style so sexy it’d knock Juan Valdez off his donkey. Created by David E. Kelley (the frighteningly prolific writer-producer who’s also behind The Practice and Chicago Hope), it’s got everything a hip ’90s-style one-hour comedy-drama should: sharp, off-kilter dialogue, a talented ensemble cast, and button-pushing story lines hot off the cultural zeitgeist. So what’s not to love?
Apparently, a lot. In fact, not since thirtysomething has a series so divided the nation, with half the viewers enthralled, half aghast. To Ally acolytes, Kelley has crafted a witty spin on the tired woman’s-show formula (think a younger, smarter, and much thinner Molly Dodd). They adore its wacky fantasy sequences (especially that dancing baby), its loopy sexual kinks (one character actually has a wattle fetish), and the twisty webs of romantic confusions that keep Ally in a perpetual state of adorable abashment.
To the anti-Allys, though, all of the above is all but unbearable — not to mention pretentious, overly precious, even sexist. They were particularly offended by that suggestive cappuccino scene, in which Ally and a female coworker (ex-Melrose Place resident Courtney Thorne-Smith) turned their morning pick-me-ups into caffeinated foreplay (“See that foam on the plastic? Lick it off….”). They think the very idea of the coed bathroom at Ally’s too-cutesy law office is, well, full of crap. They sniff at Ally’s painfully self-absorbed insecurities and vulnerabilities (“The world’s whiniest TV heroine,” crabbed the L.A. Times). And, boy, do they ever want to shoot the show’s piano player.
All this discord, it turns out, hasn’t hurt Ally in the least — especially since both the love-its and hate-its seem to be watching in ever-growing numbers. Last week’s episode pulled the biggest ratings yet — 14.3 million — trouncing The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seriously challenging the Big Three competition, even besting its lead-in, the once mighty Melrose. And with the end of Monday Night Football, more and more men are tuning in — 5.8 million last week — although it’s unclear whether they’re drawn more by the mannered tailoring of Kelley’s Emmy-winning writing or by Ally’s incredible shrinking hemline.