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Ally McBeal Season 5 Derailed Before It Even Began

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We were ending with the wedding and Season 5 was arced out as their married life. All that was thrown to the side when Robert had to take his leave. It was disappointing not to get to do that ending. He’d been so good; he left a huge void, and there was a concern that we’d never rise to the same level again. But these things happen, and there was a lot of rewriting that always went on with Ally anyway.
– David E. Kelley

Ally McBeal was appointment TV for me when it was first airing on Fox from 1997 to 2001. I was so in tune with it for a while that each episode’s mood would carry into my mood for days. I didn’t get caught up in the think tank about whether the show was good for feminism or not. I didn’t get caught up in Calista Flockhart’s weight or skirt length. What got into me was how the magical realism made all the characters feel so real.

Ally showed how people were feeling in cartoon-adjacent ways. Ally literally melts when she sees someone she’s interested in. She worries about her biological clock and dances with the Internet’s Dancing Baby. Everyone broke into song constantly. It was a show that never just told you something. And there was nothing like it at the time. It was slapstick comedy with a political bent and complicated emotional stakes, and it treated your heart with respect the whole time. It was pure magic.

Never mind that the initial “love story” between Ally and her first love Billy (Gil Bellows)—who’s now married—had a whole bunch of fans rooting for a guy to cheat on his wife.

Georgia and Billy stand next to each other in the law office. They're recieving news from one of their fellow lawyers.The show won’t age well everywhere, but that’s time for you. Back then Boys Will Be Boys was sadly accepted. The interesting part of those early episodes is that Ally’s feelings were complicated and so were everyone else’s. I’m glad they made Billy’s wife Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith) a good person, for one thing. Every character lived and breathed in ways both positive and negative, and they all felt more alive than any other shows airing near them.

Ally’s Season 4 is right up there with The X-Files Season 2 as one of the most satisfying seasons of television I’ve seen. It’s all down to Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal and Robert Downey Jr. as Larry Paul. His character is so indelible to me that I’m not even going to look up his character name to make sure I got it right. He and Ally were so great together. He was good for her and she was able to crack through his complicated heart, too. Nobody was going to be better than Larry for Ally. The quote at the top of this article from an interview with The Hollywood Reporter shows how creator/writer David E. Kelley thought the same thing. Ally and Larry were going to get married at the end of the season, and Season 5 was going to be their married life.

Ally McBeal and Larry Paul sharing a tender moment GIF

Except Downey had addiction issues at the time. Downey was fresh out of a year-long prison sentence and ready to slip back into bad behavior at any moment. He served his time but he hadn’t yet done the work on himself to get over his more-famous-than-him addiction issues. Kelley was taking a gamble on him. I remember hearing the show even had some insurance policy in case Downey relapsed. And that’s what happened right before they were going to film the season finale. Downey got arrested while in possession of cocaine and Kelley had to completely rewrite the finale, though he kept its original title: “The Wedding.”

I understand there’s more to Downey’s issues, and that addiction is a real human issue. Honestly, I’m probably happier than most for Downey’s successful tenure as Tony Stark because I was paying attention when he couldn’t overcome the addiction and wouldn’t get out of his own way. I wanted so badly for him to get over his issues.

But in terms of the story in progress on Ally McBeal, the show happened to be part of the collateral damage on Robert Downey Jr.’s eventual road to recovery. Larry left Ally at the altar and she was back to being single. And that probably should’ve been all there was based on the scrambling the show went through in the wake of Downey’s absence.

In a blatant attempt to fill the void of Larry-less scenes, new lawyers were hired onto the firm Ally worked for, most notably Jenny and Glenn.

Jenny Shaw and Glenn Foy stand in the law office of Ally McBeal even though it appears they are the main characters of the show now.

Glenn Foy was played by James Marsden, who was X-Men’s Cyclops at the time so I already liked him. I didn’t know Jenny Shaw’s actress Julianne Nicholson from anywhere else, so no bias there, but I liked her alright, too. I didn’t mind their romance, or that Jenny was someone Ally took under her wing. I didn’t even entirely mind Ally almost being the other woman in Jenny and Glenn’s romance.

The reason why I hated Jenny and Glen (and even their lawyer friend Raymond, played by Josh Hopkins) was because they were suddenly the main characters. Ally and the other characters we’d gotten to know over four years were practically sidelined from their own show. It felt like a backdoor pilot for at least five episodes in a row. Instead of hiring new people, why not invest in working out new story directions for Ally and the others? I know Kelley had his plans, but a stalling technique to possibly leave room for Larry returning didn’t have to involve stalling Ally’s story entirely and installing new focus characters.

We had John Cage (Peter MacNicol) trying to win over Ally one more time, but this time not in a believable way. This did not service the amazing work Peter MacNicol had given us up to that point. This was a stopgap. I understand Downey’s arrest was unplanned, and that Kelley had a season all planned out, but the flailing lost half of what I loved about the show in no time flat.

The show almost recovered admirably by the end, especially since there was a flash of Larry in the back third of episodes and I’m pretty sure it was new post-arrest footage of Downey. We were teased more Larry. This is a good thing! (I learned later he was actually supposed to come back to the show in Season 5 after he completed his sentence, except there was Downey’s 2001 arrest and Kelley officially fired him.)

Again, I respect what Downey was going through as a person. But Kelley intentionally spun the show’s wheels for eight episodes while he waited to start the Season 5 he’d intended. And then he couldn’t do it.

These days, the show would’ve just taken a year off, and there would only be 13 or so episodes per season anyway. But not in 2001. Back then, the show must go on, and the story suffered for it. And so did the show’s legacy. It ended on a whimper. From a story standpoint, the show would’ve been better off being cancelled.

I understand the show was already renewed at that point. I understand each show has a crew that creates it and therefore a paycheck is expected for all involved. From a business standpoint, I understand how and why the show must go on, but from a story point of view, the story was hijacked.

David E. Kelley—who I consider a gold standard of writing for television well before he penned the Big Little Lies adaptation—created more story hurdles than he cleared with his quickest thinking. It would’ve been better for our fondness of the show if it had gone out on top of its game. Instead, we had Let’s Wait This Out for half a season and then a perfectly great turn of Jon Bon Jovi playing quintessential rebound guy Victor Morrison. Bon Jovi did really well on the show but everyone could tell Ally was just spinning her wheels with him. More wasted time.

Victor Morrison and Ally McBeal on the couch, not exactly happy to be nestled together.

Right after that, we got a bizarre contrivance of Ally having a 10-year-old daughter—thanks to an egg donation mix-up earlier in her life. I could see this landing in the middle of Ally’s married season after Larry trying to convince Ally she should have kids (or vice versa). It would’ve worked great thematically under those circumstances, But here, after the half season of the Jenny and Glenn Show, it landed with a great big “Oh great, now what?”

Hayden Panettiere played Maddie Harrington on Ally McBeal.

The way we actually got the storyline, Ally is being introduced to the role of single mother. There was still proper character growth to be had, and we got plenty of it. And Maddie Harrington, played by Hayden Panettiere, was an amazing character who really grew on me. So it wasn’t a bad storyline by any means, but it now felt Too Little Too Late.

The show ended with Ally McBeal leaving Boston for New York for the greater good, which was what was best for Maddie. That’s a good parenting choice for sure, I’m not faulting that. What I find disappointing about the ending was that I had to look up a recap to figure that out. Reading about it revealed that I didn’t remember a minute of the finale. I couldn’t even remember if Gil Bellows came back for a scene in the finale. The momentum was all gone by then.

I’m still holding a torch for the first four seasons of Ally McBeal. The show never rose to that same level again, just like Kelley worried about. And it really was disappointing to not have his originally-intended ending.

Ally McBeal and Larry Paul were THE match of the entire show.

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Written by John Bernardy

John Bernardy has been writing for 25YL since before the site went public and he’s loved every minute. The show most important to him is Twin Peaks. He is husband to a damn fine woman, father to two fascinating individuals, and their pet thinks he’s a good dog walker.

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  1. I just discovered this website, and this article is right on time for me. I spent the past year watching Ally McBeal on Hulu for the very first time. It was a show I was certainly aware of during its original run on TV, and would occasionally come across and watch for a bit in the late 90s. Always seemed like a fun enough show, but I just never got around to fully embracing it (and probably didn’t want to begin mid series either).

    Anyway–great article. I expected this article to be a bash-fest based on the headline, so I like that you seem to have a genuine appreciation (and disappointment) for the series.

    Having just finished watching the series finale five days ago (and not having a single thing spoiled for me–including casting hirings and firings), I echo your overall sentiments. The show, when it was firing on all cylinders, had a silly, charming magic and whimsy to it. It was over the top and quite exaggerated, but it also managed to be one of the more touching shows that featured characters I really connected with.

    With that said–I was shocked at how poor season five was. Dumfounded, really. I know David E. Kelley programs have a bit of a reputation for taking extreme nosedives out of nowhere, but I was actually impressed at the end of every single season beforehand, as season 1-4 was not only still watchable, but had some really great moments, episodes and characters. In fact, everytime I thought it was going to take a nosedive (Billy’s death, John Cage’s remote controlled room in the bathroom, Anne Heche’s barking, re-introducing–and then swiftly removing–Ally’s voiceover in season four), it found a way to course correct and stay afloat.

    So I wasn’t prepared for what season five ultimately became. I appreciate you giving context as to WHY season five was such a mess.

    I will say this, however. David E. Kelly wrote 90% of this entire series, which is pretty incredible. And although I appreciate that he may have had a vision for what he wanted season five to be…don’t you think blaming a lot of season five’s woes on Downey’s problems sort of gives Kelley (and his writers room) a bit of an easy pass or easy excuse for why season five was so disappointing?

    In other words, casting changes happen all the time in the entertainment business. From what I read, he never envisioned “Ally McBeal” lasting past five or six seasons anyway. So yeah, I understand that Downey was gone, but man, this show kept throwing new character after new character onto the screen, it almost felt to me that it was trying to overcompensate for a loss much bigger than Ally McBeal’s potential husband.

    And perhaps it was–because you didn’t mention that Ally’s best friend Renee was gone. Ling disappeared after a few episodes. And Taye Diggs’ character didn’t return from the prior season either. That’s a lot of characters, and really, between the loss of Downey and Lisa Nicole Carson, the show lost two of the people that were most close to Ally.

    In the end, I agree with you that it was a major mistake making so many of the new characters be the focus of the final season early on. Not only those three new characters that you mentioned in your article, but the introduction of Claire Otoms, Ally’s randomly generated child, and Jon Bon Jovi (who always seemed to be eavesdropping on Ally’s conversations in her own house) just were bad choices across the board, in my opinion.

    They even replaced Ally’s “girl talk” sessions with Renee (a character that even Ally herself never mentions the entire final season–until the series finale–which is beyond bizarre) with those one on one therapy sessions with a lawyer turned therapist. Then they abandoned that halfway through the season, too.

    The final season just felt like it was at odds with itself. It’s interesting that you felt the show was buying time, hoping Downey would return. I felt the final season was desperately trying new things, hoping something would catch a spark and really take off. And it just never did. Meanwhile, if you’re someone like Regina Hall or Portia De Rossi, you gotta be thinking, “why am I even here anymore.” It’s like their characters were on timeout the entire season.

    Even the very, very end of the series kept bringing in new characters and actors, such as Christina Ricci and a young Bobby Cannivale. I actually really liked Ricci’s character, and thought she gave the show a much needed shot in the arm in the last few episodes.

    I also still don’t understand why the character of John Cage was absent for so many episodes (maybe half of the entire season). He’s one of the best characters on the show. I know it probably has to do with off-screen issues/politics, but it was disappointing nonetheless.

    But oddly enough, I actually really, really enjoyed the series finale. It brought back a lot of familiar faces, it felt really focused on the characters we cared the most about (and sidelined almost all of the newer ones we didn’t), and really wrapped things up in a melancholy yet slightly hopeful note. It kind of gave me everything I hoped it would.

    Overall, great article. And on the whole, a really great, touching show with characters that I’ll miss watching.

    And yet, I still cannot believe how poorly written and conceived season five was. I think, even with the Downey arrest and his inability to return to the show, Kelley (and his team) could’ve done a much, much better job than what they provided. Very rarely do shows stay consistently good their entire run, but I’m honestly baffled at how much season five went off the rails. In my opinion, giving Ally a child mid-season (without any foreshadowing that it would even possibly happen) is sadly the worst offense of that final season.

    • Glad you appreciated my angle at this…I appreciate when other folks really felt this show too. It was appointment viewing for practically its whole run for me.
      I was implying here that Kelley should’ve made different choices, but went more with what actually happened when I knew the answers. I wish Kelley would’ve decided to invest in other stories and characters, because of what ended up happening. I think he highly miscalculated when to strong arm the situation this time.
      Only other thing I can think of is that Peter MacNicol wanted to leave the show and was adjusted to special guest star in Season 5 to those ends. Honestly, I forget when Renee was written out but I thought it was between Seasons 3 and 4…and I hear you about characters being introduced only to become wallpaper. James LeGros’ Marc feels like the posterchild of that stuff; couldn’t even make it out of Season 3 before he seemed to have no place. I think I was immune to that kind of thing well before Season 5 happened so I didn’t notice it as much.

  2. The original article and reply somewhat sums up the entire Ally McBeal experience. I realize that characters come and go in a series like this, but to only end up with Ally, Richard, and Elaine as regulars was a definite way to get cancelled. While David Kelley has no control over Downey’s addictions, Georgia’s leaving, or Rene’s real life breakdown, they should have been written out of the show properly, or at least in the case of the latter two, mentioned as moving on. Georgia and Rene were essential to many of the episodes’ story line, yet nothing about their departures when they left. Georgia more than balanced the show with her intelligence and mature attitude, more than making up for the snide and caustic attitudes of later characters Nell and Ling. And what about Judge “Whipper” Cone (Dyan Cannon), who also brought a breath of fresh air to the show? By Season 5, the show was down to showing only one judge. I’ve recently rewatched the series during this pandemic and while it’s nice to watch something whimsical, I am reminded that as the other comments said, Kelley should have folded while he was ahead, and not done such a silly season as 5. For David Kelley fans, Kelley’s writing excels in “Boston Legal” and character development and pertinent story lines far exceed that of his “Ally McBeal” days.

  3. Wow,

    The 5th Season was horrible but so was the 4th season too. I have always liked Robert Downey Jr….but the show was a shell of itself. Characters just disappear and Ally becomes annoying!

    In the days before TiVo I did not catch certain shows as often as I do today (cuz I can watch them when I want). So during this Covid house arrest, I caught up on a lot that I have missed over the years.

    The First Season was good. Although, I never realized how horribly politically incorrect this show was. Personally, I am not into cancel culture and can take/see a joke for what it is. Not easily being offended.

    But again, Wow! Cheating on a Spouse. Homophobia, Calling people retarded or a tiny midget. Making fun of mental illness. Complete sexual harassment and on on and on.

    Funny, how Ally McBeal is revered as “classic” TV. Today, though? They would be Twittered out of existence after 10 episodes!

    Yet, I digress. 5th Season? Ally is literally 10 years older than James Marsden. Forgetting that she started to show age in the 5th. But at 32 she is all of sudden in love with a 22 year old? Where is Vonda? Where is Mark? Where is Renee? Where is Georgia form 2,3 Seasons ago? This is tiring! When Billy died it should have ended!

  4. I loved the show for the first four seasons. It was great…Mostly. What this article COMPLETELY left out was Renee. Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t the only one with problems, and the absence of Renee was just as big a gap as Robert Downey being gone. Renee was ally’s anchor and vis/versa.

    Plus, I HATE the way you have main characters fall out with NO EXPLANATION—They connect you to Georgia and Renee, let them start a firm and then bam, no more Renee or Georgia. They take the effort to make Mark a character and then let him slip away with no exit storyline.

    Mark could have had a great storyline if they would have had half a brain. Cindy should have had a sex change and Mark should have paid for it and then married her. She was a very likable character. What was the point of having Mark fall in true love with someone that could not be satisfied. So they killed Mark. Lame.

    And then the BOMB that killed the show for me. Why oh why did we add Claire Otoms. WHY? This actor’s persona is so contrived and unbelievable, plus no one liked her/it at the firm. she was just annoying. And no one ever suggested this was a man in drag? They played this out till the end which I can’t believe. Thank God she was not out there to say goodbye to Ally because Ally did not like her. In the second to last episode Ally got mad at her for just being (she turned Helen in Helena by just talking). She is ugly to begin with, and for some reason they thought a viewer would want to see this thing with acid reflux? OMG why would they do that?! It was repulsive.

    Then they made us hate Ally for being this poor thing with no luck at love and she finds Jon Bon Jovi and they make her into this whiney, can never be satisfied with a good thing person, petulant brat who finds fault in things that people don’t find fault in. Rebel without a cause—LAME. Victor was a good person she shit all over and by the end of the episode where she broke up with him, I HATED ALLY. The episode before she has the AMAZING Victor at dinner and what does she do? Fucks it all up and heads to hang out with Chandler Bing. THEN she goes back to him and tells him it’s him, and they make love. THEN SHE DUMPS HIM! WHAT?!

    The show became contrived, the court cases less and more contrived. And then they brought Renee back for the final episode with NO PERSONALITY. She KNOCKED on Ally’s door! Renee would have had a key. How can you remove a characters BEST FRIEND with NO EXPLANATION and expect that not to be noticed. NOT ONE WORD OF RENEE’S ABSENCE, yet she would frequently ponder Larry’s absence. MADE NO SENSE.

    The show ended on a whimper which really sucked. I wish they would have cancelled it after 4 seasons.

  5. I absolutely agreed with everything you said. I’m 32 and remember watching the show in real time and decided to watch again on Hulu because I love all my 90s shows. I am so disappointed in season 5. Larry and Ally were a great match. The season was garbage, all over the place and forgettable. I did not like the season finale that now Ally’s daughter is having even more adjustment problems but we don’t see them develop, they’re just all of a sudden told to us.
    I really loved the first four seasons and Ally & Larry combo. There were some wonderful performances from fantastic actors. I miss it.

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