The latter was a great moment for television, and a great disappointment for anyone who hoped for an Ally-style incarnation of adorable quirkiness and perky smartness. These two legal eagles are separated by more than just the passage of time and their different life stages.
Ally would never become an Alicia — but she might develop a fan-girl crush on her. Alicia could become Ally’s Diane Lockhart, the clever, elegant, mature senior partner who, in career terms, is something of a role model.
The superficial similarities of the characters’ situations only emphasise their essential differences. When we first meet Alicia, she is returning to work as a junior litigator in the wake of her husband’s disgrace and imprisonment, and becomes involved with Will Gardner, one of the firm’s senior partners.
At the beginning of Ally McBeal, Ally is starting a new job, not realising that she will be working with her ex-boyfriend Billy, her childhood sweetheart and the love of her life, now married to an attractive lawyer.
Ally’s love triangle is emotional and heart-wrenching and, in spite of the characters’ ages, has something of the poignancy of teenage love. Alicia’s, on the other hand, is as grown-up, as painful, as complicated and as compromised as can be.
Both characters have less than luminary aspects to their careers in these firms.
Ally went to Harvard Law School only because that’s where Billy was, and, it must be said, never develops much interest in the law and never evolves into the kind of attorney you would choose to defend you.
Alicia gets her job at Lockhart Gardner in spite of not being the best candidate through a little flirtatious connecting with Will. But somehow that’s OK, and we admire and applaud Alicia’s rise to prominence as an eminent lawyer.
At the same time, she manages a complicated marriage to her difficult, powerful politician husband and is an involved mother to her two children. And through all this, she maintains a cool, sexy demeanour and dresses with the casual elegance that indicates great taste and a shedload of money.
But there is something to be said for characters we can relate to.
Ally’s insecurities and emotional vulnerability and romantic entanglements hit many familiar buttons.
The depiction of a highly educated professional woman whose single and childless status becomes a matter of overwhelming concern mines the same rich seam as Bridget Jones, and evokes a similar mix of empathy and irritation.
Ally offers an accessible experience. You could say to a dear daughter, ‘If you study and pass your exams, you could have a job like Ally McBeal! You could cut a dash in a courtroom and then hang out in a cool bar and sing soul and Motown classics! You could have a theme song!’
As a depiction of women’s lives at work and at play, Ally is fun and engaging entry-level.
The show’s cartoonish, surreal style gives her story the style and aesthetic of a pop video, which makes the moments of real pain and intensity all the more effective, but at the same time underlines the show’s essentially light-hearted comic ethos.
Alicia is in a different league. She is up there with the big girls, and that her husband and her financial situation give her added clout is a realistic reflection of the way things are.
Gravitas, status and influence mixed with warmth and humanity, and the ability to rock a cool jacket. You saw the photos. Alicia Florrick and Michelle Obama, power dressers in the best sense of the word.
Poor Ally McBeal. When her newly-found daughter, who is the adopted product of Ally’s donated egg for research years earlier, (who would have thought she — Hayden Panettiere — would turn up as another troubled kid, Juliette Barnes in #Nashville_ABC?) spills something on Ally’s jacket, Ally squawks, ‘It’s Chanel!’
That wouldn’t have worried Alicia. She — and Michelle — have closets full of good gear, which they wear with the light aplomb of magnificent women.