The genre of cringe comedy, on the surface, sounds fairly easy to define. According to TV Tropes, it’s just what you’d expect: “comedy that gives you second-hand shame” or “comedy you have to watch through the gaps between your fingers.” I’m sure any number of 21st-century television series spring to mind here. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, The Office, The Mindy Project, Girls, or Veep, for instance. Better yet, mockumentaries like The Comeback, Modern Familyor even Abbott Elementary would not exist without the cringe comedy before it. The genre endears because it allows for character-driven storytelling, which can be intense or casual. But one series that somehow remains out of the existing discourse on the cringe comedy is one that basically pioneered it for the millennium: Ally McBeal.
“Ally McBeal has now fallen so far off the cultural radar that it’s almost hard to believe that it had the kind of vast influence it was thought to at the time, “wrote Bitch Media in 2010. It’s true — the series was a beloved critical darling during its original run on Fox between 1997 and 2002, amassing 34 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, 12 Golden Globe Award nominations, and 13 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations over five seasons. But it was also the subject of criticism, particularly on the feminist spectrum. Indeed, Ally McBeal‘s popularity and influence on the women watching it was thought to have been so influential that, on Time magazine’s cover story for June 29, 1998, Calista Flockhart‘s head appeared alongside that of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem with the caption, “Is feminism dead?”
It was a completely unfair accusation, of course, to blame all of third-wave feminism’s progress to that point on the apparent shortcomings of Ally McBealespecially considering that cover story would have appeared just weeks after the Sex and the City pilot first aired. But the fictional lawyer’s propensity for short skirts in court and tendency for sorrow and longing over the men she’s lost and the married (read: complete) life she so desperately yearns for was less a commentary on feminism’s failings and more on that of the urban loneliness. of adult life.
Not only is Ally extremely picky when it comes to men, but she knows she’d rather experience the pain of loneliness than to be in a relationship with someone she does not enjoy. A common trope at the end of some Ally McBeal episodes were showing a montage of other couples on the series being happy together while Ally walks home alone on the streets of Boston, sometimes sad and sometimes content with being lonely. It’s this vulnerability of its title character that not only helped the series find its hook as an hour-long dramedy but also one that contributes to its status as one of the most simultaneously embarrassing and entertaining cringe comedies of all time.
Speaking of hour-long dramas, it is important to note that, despite their loveable quality during rewatches in the streaming age, they often have a hard time finding their footing on network television. Aaron Sorkin‘s Sports Nightwhich premiered a year after Allywas equally critically adored but failed because the half-hour production could not properly distinguish itself as either a comedy or a drama. Ally McBealhowever, overcame this challenge thanks in part to David E. Kelley‘s signature quirky writing style and the chemistry the cast members shared. But because the series would come to be better remembered for its supposedly botched portrayals of feminism, its legacy as one of the best character-driven cringe comedies to ever air on network television is mostly lost in history.
Indeed, Ally McBeal‘s approach to comedy just has a certain “if you know, you know” quality to it, most of which just would not fly in today’s media. Whether it’s Richard Fish’s (Greg Germann) “Waddle” kink, John Cage’s (Peter MacNicol) social awkwardness and speech impediment, or Ling Woo’s (Lucy Liu) signature glare, the series succeeded quickly by establishing its characters with specific quirks that make the viewer feel as if they know them personally. It’s something that few sitcoms are able to do flawlessly, let alone an hour-long dramedy. Similar to Desperate Housewives or Gilmore Girls after it, Ally McBeal was able to utilize both character-driven, dramatic storytelling and cringe comedy outside the confines of a 22-minute sitcom. It is difficult to imagine the bizarre but hilarious office politics on 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation if Ally hadn’t done it first.
And yet, Ally McBeal hasn’t enjoyed as much of an international streaming rebirth as other series of its era. Even as it has appeared on Netflix in the United States, most of this can be blamed on music licensing issues, as with most series from past decades that have yet to become available to stream. But the series is seldom remembered for being an exemplary cringe comedy during its earlier years because, like many in both the cringe and dramedy genres, it quickly descended from inexplicable but entertaining cringe to a perplexing farce — like Roseanne before it and Glee after it.
“I can not even think of a character on [current] network television who purports to be some kind of embodiment of the ‘contemporary woman,’ for lack of a better phrase, ”reflected Bitch Media’s Michelle Dean. She offered Julianna Margulies on The Good Wife, but Alicia Florrick is a far cry from the influence of twentieth-century women like Mary Richards, Bridget Jones, Carrie Bradshaw, or Ally McBeal. It’s ultimately ironic that Ally is better remembered for her feminist principles, or lack thereof, rather than her vast influence on the decades of network TV comedy that would follow her.