I hear from office scuttlebutt (and, I'm proud to say, for the eighth year in a row, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY has produced more scuttlebutt 6 1/2-plus quarts per week! than any magazine in America) that Calista Flockhart acquits herself quite well in the upcoming feature film of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Good: With a movie career abudding, she should hire the law firm on The Practice to look for loopholes in her contract and get the hell out of Ally McBeal while the getting is good. As they say on that other show, Calista, it is time for ''Plan B.''
In its present, second season, McBeal has turned into the sort of squirmy embarrassment its detractors said it was all along and those of us who found it an amusing divertissement always hoped it would never become. Speaking from the latter camp, I admit we shoulda known better. Based on his writing for L.A. Law, Chicago Hope, Picket Fences, and The Practice, Ally writer-creator David E. Kelley has long tended to cook up sympathetic characters and then plop them into either thorny moral dilemmas or ludicrous plot twists time-honored dramatic strategies, to be sure, but ones that Kelley tends to repeat and then run into the ground. Ridiculousness doomed Fences early on I could never watch it without thinking that this show about the life of a small-town sheriff and his family was Kelley's cross between Twin Peaks and The Andy Griffith Show, but crucially lacking the bruised allure of either Sheryl Lee or Don Knotts.
Right now, The Practice is getting more thornily moral by the minute (not yet a bad thing for a show that likes to dismantle ethics and morality and, Houdini-like, put them back together again in the space of a single hour: presto!). But that means all of Kelley's ridiculous quotient is being funneled into McBeal, most of it dumped on Flockhart. Thus far this season, she's fallen into a toilet and had to have firemen come to rescue her; propelled herself down a bowling alley after throwing a ball that was stuck to her fingers (liked the Ally/alley visual pun, though, Dave); and been compelled by the script to act as if guest star John Ritter were irresistible. (One hopes that Ritter's Three's Company costar, the recently deceased Norman Fell, didn't witness the horrific fantasy sequence in which Flockhart's surrealistically distended tongue licks creamy goo off Ritter's face.)
Where Ally McBeal used to be about the tribulations of an eccentric single woman trying to find happiness in a workplace family of weirdos a sort of Mary Tyler Moore Show as conceived by Happiness director Todd Solondz the series is now about Ally's abasement. What was once wistful solitude has become desperate loneliness; her quest for a man has soured into a hatred of other women who have men. (For what other purpose, I ask you, do new characters like Portia de Rossi's smarmy Nelle and Lucy Liu's hostile Ling exist, except as cartoon seductresses upon whom Ally, Courtney Thorne-Smith's Georgia, and Jane Krakowski's Elaine can heap contempt?)
Mind you, I'm not, as TIME magazine did, blaming McBeal for the death of feminism. Looking at the work of David Kelley for feminist messages is like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting for sailboats and sunsets. And it's not just the Ally character who's suffered from this season's new gross-in-every-sense exaggeration. The other new area of McBeal McMediocrity is the de-evolution of Peter MacNicol's John Cage at one time the most beguiling character on the show from charming odd duck to full-blown nutjob, sputtering non sequiturs and pursuing a plotline about a pet frog into realms of silliness that even the Farrelly brothers would find beneath them.
I'm not asking that McBeal do a 180-degree turn and become the realistic saga of an intelligent working woman. I'm suggesting something simpler yet more radical: that Ally McBeal leave Ally McBeal. Have Ally, fed up with falling down all the time, tired of cringing at all the self-conscious miniskirt jokes, leave town, resign, adios. Flockhart is so much in danger of being identified solely by her Monday-at-9 character that her creator is lately forcing anorexia jokes down her throat; she should spit them out rather than emote them.
If Ally left, this could become one of the first TV shows named after a character that isn't in it anymore surely such blithe perversity might appeal to a sensibility as willfully flighty as Kelley's. (She could even be replaced by Camryn Manheim's Ellenor from The Practice, who seems to be on the verge of resigning anyway, and who would deck obnoxious secretary Elaine the moment she walked in the door.) Ally McBeal's moment as a pop-cultural event has passed; obviously, viewers hanging in there now are enjoying all the cartoonish humbuggery. Let them have it, but also let Calista Flockhart escape it. C-