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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.