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Elliot B. Gertel reviews Fox's Ally McBeal

Reader Response

On Media
December 10, 1997 / 11 Kislev, 5758
Ally McBeal needs some defending of her own

Elliot B. Gertel doesn't think much of the latest from David E. Kelley and the Fox Network.

Are David E. Kelley's series becoming formulaic and stale?

Well, maybe not quite yet. But one can certainly add to the telltale signs of smugness and cutesiness a certain repetitiveness and clinging to format, especially in his approach to Jewish themes.

In the newest Kelley series, Ally McBeal, starring Calista Flockhart in the title role, tracks the trials and tribulations of a female lawyer with her share of quirks and insecurities. Here we see some Kelley formulas becoming somewhat pat.

In a recent episode, Brenda Vaccaro guest stars as a Jewish woman, devoted to her Conservative synagogue, who is seeking a Jewish divorce (get) from her husband. Kelley's old series, LA Law, dealt with the same theme in a somewhat respectful, but also wantonly skewed, manner.

In the current incarnation of a Kelley series obsessing on a Jewish divorce theme, the rabbi becomes the foil for Ally -- or is it the other way around? Ally lets the rabbi know in no uncertain terms that she regards Jewish divorce "customs" -- if not Judaism itself -- as primitive. After her confrontation, her horrified client relates that the rabbi has dismissed Ally as a man-hater, a mocker of Judaism and, yes, as a "lawyer."

As it happens, the client's recalcitrant husband eventually dies. So now the problem is a recalcitrant rabbi. Ally has offended the rabbi to the extent that he refuses to officiate at her client's marriage.

Ally is, of course, off to see the rabbi and to "make nice." But then the sparks fly again. The tension makes the rabbi -- well, legalistic.

"You came here as her agent, acting within the scope of that agency. Therefore, your actions run to her accountability," he says, clearly still miffed. In other words, his gut reaction to conflict is to become the lawyer-from-hell. Ally responds in a downright childish manner: "Is common sense pitched out by that thing [the yarmulke] on your head?" If Kelley was trying to suggest "parity" of inappropriate responses to argument, then he failed.

Obviously, Kelley relied on someone who is at least minimally fluent in the Jewish laws of agency as they apply to divorce for his research. But it's quite a stretch to suggest anyone -- a rabbi or layman -- would apply those guidelines to someone exhibiting obnoxious behavior!

What is unmistakably clear is that Kelley is not at all concerned with possible canards in his banter. He is simply setting the viewer up for the punch line -- namely, that the flying sparks between the Ally and the rabbi are more than rhetorical. Ally senses -- and is ultimately proven correct -- that the rabbi likes her. Even after he agrees to perform the wedding for her client, Ally wants to know what "pleases" him about her. Soon after their second encounter, the rabbi turns up in Ally's office unexpectedly. Dejectedly, he tells her that since he became a rabbi, he's hated how all those in whose circles he travels have tiptoed around him, and that he finds Ally's "willingness" to be obnoxious, and to treat him like she would anyone else, "refreshing." He goes on to ask her to be his date for her client's wedding. Ally, noticeably shocked, is rather blunt: "What would G-d think, you showing up with a Methodist? Besides, you know, three weeks is a long-way off and I might be in a relationship by then, G-d willing. That's my G-d."

Kelly has Ally reveal her prejudices and put her foot into her mouth in a way that makes her realistic and endearing to a growing number of viewers. But whence this depiction of the rabbi? Is he presented as so glad to be treated like one of the boys that he can't see that Ally's behavior is not so much to his benefit as to her own detriment and out of her insecurities?

Does Kelly mean to suggest that lack of insight is a syndrome of clergyhood?

Ally, of course, brushes the rabbi off -- at least initially. Later, though, she chooses to accept his offer. Speculating, as she does, that there might be some chemistry between them after all. Why? Because this man-of-the-yarmulke offended her so much and thus broke through her "indifference" to most men.

Ally also decides that the rabbi will be one of the men she will juggle -- one of the balls she keeps in the air, as she puts it -- in her latest resolve to be a "man eater." When a co-worker reminds her that the rabbi is a member of Jewry's Conservative movement and, therefore, "can't intermarry," Ally replies: "I don't convert on the first date ... I'm only looking for a little Thursday night fun." She goes on to say that she has her handsome but sloppy-eating D.A. boyfriend on Tuesday, the rabbi on Thursday, and Chicago Hope (another Kelly series) on Wednesdays. "You know," she says, defensively, "I do have a life."

She has the life Kelly gives to her, of course. The question is: What is Kelly's purpose in all of this? A growing number of women admire his depiction of the female psyche, both in Ally's dialogue and in her thoughts, which are expressed in voice-overs. Admittedly, there is a whole lot of creativity with the camera. But why the rabbi on Ally McBeal? Why does Kelley cross a line respected in most TV drama and comedies (the cases of Seinfeld and the now defunct Almost Perfect, aside) and depict rabbis as dating non-Jews?

Perhaps Kelly is of the belief that canards and stereotypes are broken if one allows characters to say and do the most unexpected and bizarre and even stereotype-confirming things, and that this is what endears characters to viewers or maybe makes characters "human" enough that people will want to identify with them and grow themselves? I suspect that I give Kelly too much credit in positing this angle, for in a subsequent episode of Ally McBeal, he briefly and gratuitously raised the dating-the-rabbi issue, for nothing more than (low-key) shock effect. But even if his motives were so noble, he might consider that when characters (and writers) trample over basic commitments, whether in religion or in manners, they are never admirable or endearing. True, they might be amusing for the moment, but in the long run, they will little more to offer than recycled vaudeville acts, which titillate the audience once or twice, but rather quickly become tired fodder. If Kelly cares a whit about artistry and style, he will consider this.


Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel is JWR's resident media maven. He is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion.

©1997, Jewish World Review