Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dulcinea: On Dreaming and Ally McBeal

I hate packing. I hate deciding what to take and what to leave behind. I hate figuring out how to arrange everything in the suitcase(s) to optimize space so I can fit all of the things I finally decided to take into a limited space. And I hate that after successfully optimizing said space to fit all those things, that I have to take everything out and rearrange those items because I did so well that my suitcase is now overweight or too fat to fit into the approved carry-on dimensions. I hate packing.

So when packing, I try to do everything I can to distract myself from this tedious and agonizing first world problem of a task. Sometimes this allows me to catch up on podcasts I've fallen behind on. However, I usually want to defer that option to the actual time of travel, when I'm on the plane and whatnot. So more often than not, while packing, I turn to the altar of Netflix. I have taken such recourse at other times of similar tedium and frustration. Once when I constructed a bookcase from IKEA, I made it through nearly half of Matt Smith's first season as the Doctor. My second time through Battlestar Galactica started with a desire to have the comforting presence and leadership of President Laura Roslin while I worked on my taxes. Recently, I've ironed my way through various mad cap hijinks the NPH pursued on How I Met Your Mother.

But for my latest packing endeavors, I would need to bring out the big guns. One show crazy enough that could take so many twists and turns in tone and genre while remaining consistent in its overall framework from episode to episode that it could maintain a flow which I could check in and out of, leaving from and returning to with general ease. One show that could make me laugh, could make me cry, and could garnish it all with amazing covers of music I love--be it Doo-wap, Motown, classic country, Broadway showtunes, Funk, or Disco. A show with an eccentric cast of characters that could distract me from my privileged toils with their hilarious and heartbreaking adventures in and out of the courtrooms they frequented. I speak, of course, of Ally McBeal.

In the 90s, I was a representation of the soul and imagination of America's legal profession. You can't handle the truth!

If you don't remember Ally McBeal, it was a cultural phenomenon at the end of the 1990s: a tragicomedy that followed the titular character in her hopeless romantic wanderings amidst an environment notorious for its contrasting soullessness: a law firm and the courtroom. McBeal was an intelligent and successful yet unlucky-in-love protagonist given to wild illusions and quirky hallucinations. Her imagination was matched by the eccentricities of an impressive cadre of characters portrayed by a much praised and relatively young ensemble cast, including Portia de Rossi (before Arrested Development), Jane Krawkoski (before 30 Rock), and Lucy Liu (before pretty much anything else she ever did; so let's go with Kill Bill). Occasionally, throughout the show's run but especially in the third season--the season the show won a multitude of Emmy awards for--the fading but viable youthfulness of the members of the law firm (and the cast) played a significant role. Highly successful in work but still in their early thirties, they were all kinda kids going through the transitions of a kind of second adolescence at its end.

The premise of the show was that Ally McBeal stumbled into a job at a firm where she worked alongside her high school and college sweetheart who broke up with her and married someone else years before. Ally struggles with the heartache of frustrated proximity to the love of her life, but she finds laughter and joy in a variety of friendships and (at times) insane legal cases. Much like its dramatic contemporary The Practice and its comedic successor Boston Legal, Ally McBeal was a creation of producer David E. Kelley that not only took place in Boston but often possessed a very loose connection to the reality of legal theory or practice. But more than other Kelley projects, Ally McBeal used the legal setting as a larger metaphor: practicing law served as the harsh and soul-crushing backdrop of adulthood contrasted against the youth, vitality, and playfulness of its cast. But for me, the brilliance of the show always remained in its perfect balance of genre.

I contend that there are fewer examples of tragicomedy better than Ally McBeal. Plenty of other shows have made me laugh more heartily, to the point of tears in fact; and Kelley cannot hold a candle to the anguish Joss Whedon has inflicted upon me over the years through his epic tragedies--no one kills off a beloved character quite like the Whedon. No, you see, the power of Ally McBeal was not specialization. It wasn't even that it could balance the smiles and frowns in a quality proportion. Rather, it triumphed very often because it produced both reactions as opposite sides of the same coin, sometimes producing both responses from the same stimuli. The humor came out of the absurdity of situations, but either the need for a humorous response or just the absurdity itself often revealed a darker truth of life. Ally's (and her co-workers') failures at dating produced a myriad of visual gags and verbal word plays, but they often pointed to a greater disappointment of all young professionals who were promised the world only to find themselves successful yet unfulfilled. Ally's hallucinations, like the dancing baby, were bizarre and ridiculous. But her hallucinations often served as Ally's defense mechanism--a way to escape the harshness of the unfeeling world she found herself in; a means to make an unknowable darkness both knowable and palatable; a process by which Ally brought a much-needed if peculiar brightness to her life and others.

What happened to you talking about packing?

While I was packing, I decided to watch one of my favorite episodes from the third season; one particularly great at striking the genre's balance and hitting on Ally's impulse to enter an imaginary world. It's a Thanksgiving Day episode where family and friends get together for both the expected and unexpected drama of season to unfold. Tensions run high between the usual cast of characters, but things go to Hell when the various infidelities of Ally's parents come to light. By the end of the episode, Ally learns that her parents have lived in a loveless marriage for decades. Many issues are discussed; Ally even takes her parents to her therapist portrayed by incomparable Tracey Ullman. But the episode does not end with a sense that the marriage will dissolve; rather it is likely that it will go on as it has been: empty, but enough. 

Either Ally did really well at Tic-Tak-Toe or Calista Flockhart and Tracey Ullman are the new cast of a very confusing reboot of the Brady Bunch.

The discovery leaves Ally lamenting that while she knows she's thirty, somehow she feels like an orphan. Ally's mother--who has often vocally critiqued Ally's romantic sentiments and tendency to escape into an imaginary world--attempts to comfort her daughter by sharing a memory and some perspective. She asks Ally if she remembers the song Ally used to sing with her father, a song about loving someone even though you never knew who they were or maybe never even met. It turns out that sometimes at night, Ally's mother wakes to hear Ally's father downstairs still playing the song ... at the piano ... alone. 

Ally's mother then says, "You know, he's been a wonderful father to you in so many ways. But where he's been the most ... heroic, you know, really, in my opinion, is how he raised you--to believe in your dreams, to believe that they'll come true. When they ... never came true for him." 

The episode hits its final note by ending with Ally sitting at a piano beginning to play the song as well as she can remember. She halts at certain keys and hits few of the notes well. Then the voice of her father comes into her head and she begins a duet. As is often the case the show ends with Vonda Shepherd's voice singing out the rest of the song as Ally collapses on a couch, beaten down by the day's events and revelations. Here's a clip of the audio of that final scene. The song is called "Dulcinea":

Does the heartbreak resonate even if you're not as obsessed with this show as I am?

Due to the unexpected length of this post; I will be dividing it into two parts. Part II  forthcoming. Stay Tuned.