It is 20 years since quirky, clumsy, romantic Ally McBeal and her dancing baby arrived on TV screens.
David E Kelley’s innovative Emmy and Golden Globe-winning show ran for five series but 15 years after it was cancelled, it is still delighting loyal fans and gaining new ones.
Allison “Ally” McBeal’s romantic and professional dilemmas are still as relevant now as they were in 1997 and Kelley’s strong writing and talented cast mean the storylines remain fresh.
I’ve been re-watching, reliving so much heartbreak. Billy’s death still literally has me bawling my eyes out. I just can’t. #AllyMcbeal— Love, Danny (@DannyWxo) September 4, 2017
Vonda Shepard sang about “the boy next door” as the first episode began on Fox on September 8 1997 and viewers were immediately introduced to Ally (Calista Flockhart) and her childhood sweetheart Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows).
The couple split up at law school but a quirk of fate sees Ally taking a job alongside Billy at Cage and Fish, a Boston law firm started by old classmate Richard Fish (Greg Germann) and the brilliant, eccentric defence attorney John Cage (Peter MacNicol).
The will-they-won’t-they sexual tension between Ally and Billy was key to the show’s early success but was never the only attraction due to a cast of colourful characters including attention-seeking secretary Elaine Vassal (Jane Krakowski), Ally’s prosecutor flatmate Renee Raddick (Lisa Nicole Carson) and Billy’s wife Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith).
Musical numbers from Shepard and the cast, especially during the firm’s Christmas parties in the bar nearby, were a particular highlight and stars including Sir Elton John, Sting and Barry White made guest appearances.
The dancing baby, a creepy hallucination which signified Ally’s ticking biological clock, made headlines when the show launched and the dated animation is one of a few things which gives away the show’s age.
Flockhart’s slender figure and the character’s short skirts also got plenty of column inches while a 1998 Time magazine cover featuring the character asked “Is Feminism dead?”
But despite the comedy of Ally’s clumsiness, John’s nose whistles and the animation that made bragging heads grow and lustful cartoon tongues hang out, there was emotional depth to Kelley’s characters.
Later shows explored Ally’s difficult relationship with her parents, while “subzero” Nelle Porter (Portia de Rossi) thaws and vicious Ling Woo (Lucy Liu) gradually reveals a softer side.
Viewing figures in the US peaked at an average of 13.8 million for series two but fell to 9.4 million for series five and the show was cancelled.
Dyan Cannon, who played Judge Jennifer “Whipper” Cone, said the “humanity” of the show had kept it relevant to current audiences.
“Nothing really changes much,” she told the Press Association.
“We change fashion, we change our hair colour and length but our hearts stay the same. The things that affect our hearts really don’t change.
“The things that hurt us, the things that disappoint us, the things that limit us, the things that push us, those things tend to stay the same and David (Kelley) understands that.”
In the show, “Whipper” has a relationship with Richard Fish who gets turned on by older women with sagging necks.
Cannon described the judge as a wonderful character: “She wasn’t this typical girl that looked nice. She had this wattle. I had never heard it and never read it. I didn’t even know the word. I think David (Kelley) made it up.
“Still, to this day, my favourite line in this show is ‘can I touch your wattle?’ I still have people come up to me in the street and ask me that.”