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Monday Night Face-Off

I am not a football fan. (And don't you dismiss it as a "chick thing." It's not the sport -- it's all the padding.)

Despite that, Monday Night Football is the only show that comes to mind when I think of the wasteland that is Monday night television. Monday night is consistently where the networks stick their lamest efforts, the red-headed stepchildren of their development pacts with studios.

For a long time, the other networks have shrewdly countered the two-and-a-half hour football extravaganza by using Monday nights to broadcast shows that appeal to women. This year, NBC has gone so far as to run a lineup of four half-hour shows starring professional working women. If you were a woman, wouldn't you be offended that NBC felt the uninviting Suddenly Susan, Caroline in the City, Fired Up, and The Naked Truth were the shows that spoke to you?

This season on Mondays, Fox is offering the nighttime soap opera Melrose Place (now in its seventh season, if you can believe that) and newcomer Ally McBeal, an hour-long show about a quirky young female lawyer working in Boston. And believe it or not, this unlikely pair makes Fox a good shoulder to turn to on Monday nights when you'd like to avoid that scintillating match-up between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions.

Go ahead and make fun of Melrose Place all you want--I certainly do. But you've got to admit that the show was immensely popular for a long time, and it's quite an accomplishment for any show to survive for seven years. On the Internet at least Melrose Place is a far more magnetic subject than Monday Night Football. Alta Vista finds 6,164 references to Melrose Place, while it only returns 2,598 matches for Monday Night Football. Of course, we've yet to see Dan Dierdorf try to run over Al Michaels because of Al's illicit affair with Frank Gifford on MNF. (Given Frank's current marital problems, though, we're beginning to wonder if that time may not be so far away.)

Maybe Melrose Place's surprising success can be explained by producer Aaron Spelling's fool-proof formula, one that's been working since Charlie's Angels: Put a lot of young hotties together somewhere in California where they don't need to wear too many clothes. (Actually, that's just one of his formulas. The other involves casting members of his family, and in the case of Melrose Place, he's failed miserably so far in that regard.)

Then again there always seems to be an audience for nighttime soap operas. (Consider the inexplicable 1980's success of Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Knots Landing.) I think it's because all the people with day jobs are secretly envious of those people who get to stay home and watch soap operas.

My sophomore year at college, I watched Melrose dutifully, alongside everyone else in my dorm. But that was four years ago, and much to my dismay, more than the pool filters have changed at Melrose Place. Loveable red-haired vixen Sydney has been killed off, and the detestable Michael Mancini has moved on to cheating on yet another trusting woman. I've been out of the Melrose loop for longer than I thought -- apparently Melrose Place years are a lot like dog years.

Though Melrose is getting a bit tired in its old age, It's still got enough trashy dialogue, catty remarks, and backstabbing intrigue to get it through one more season. Of course, that's not to say it's riveting television--I found myself leaving the room several times during the hour. The acting is poor, but what actor could ever pull off the crazy dialogue the Melrose Place cast has been given?

Michael: "Between your sexual demands and my job, I'm exhausted."

Taylor: "I don't want a relationship. I don't want a commitment. I want your sperm. So, shut up and give it your best shot."

As drama, Melrose Place doesn't make it. As an alternative to football, however, it's safe -- so long as you don't take it too seriously.

In Ally McBeal, Fox takes you to the most dangerous place in the world: into the mind of a woman. The question is, does multiple Emmy Award-winning producer David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope, Picket Fences, The Practice) succeed with this bold premise?

Most of the time, he does indeed.

Calista Flockhart (who played the son's fiancee in "The Birdcage") shines in the title role, easily one of the most intelligent and interesting female characters on TV today. (Not a difficult list to get on when you consider the competition over on NBC: Brooke Shields' Suddenly Susan and Lea Thompson's Caroline in the City. Gillian Anderson's work as agent Dana Scully on The X Files is brilliant, but Scully's near-complete asexuality and unwavering seriousness don't exactly make her a character representative of most human beings, male or female.)

If nothing else, Ally McBeal is different from just about every other show on TV. For example:

Fantasy sequences. Whenever Ally has a reaction to someone or something, the viewer sees what she's really thinking in fantasy sequences. For instance, when one of her love interests tells her, "I don't think you and I will work out," she sees herself hurled off a truck into a garbage dumpster. When Ally makes an embarrassing social faux pas, you'll actually see her foot wind up in her mouth. Some of the thoughts are more bizarre than others. When she finds out that her ex-boyfriend (whom she still has feelings for) has married, we see arrows puncture her heart. Yes, we've seen this before in Dream On and Herman's Head, but the way the fantasies are handled in Ally McBeal are a cut above.

Smart dialogue. Of course, one of Kelley's trademarks is smart dialogue, and it's on display here. (Whether one of his other trademarks, that his series end up crashing and burning in terms of quality after the course of a year, holds up with Ally McBeal remains to be seen.)

Whereas on Suddenly Susan characters toss a steady stream one-liners and put-downs across one another's bows without ever having an interesting conversation, Ally McBeal's characters actually seem to be interacting with each other.

For instance, when one of Ally's potential love interests rejects her, she summons up her courage and demands to know why. "I want, I want, I want," the guy responds, "makes for an interesting character, but it doesn't work in a relationship. You go through people, and you'll go through me. The day you stop wanting is the day you die." The characters analyze each other constantly. That is not to say that Ally doesn't have great lines to deliver, but on this show they don't seem that they're just snappy lines put in for a quick laugh. They're Ally's personal reflections and insights -- the thoughts of a fully-developed character. One of my favorites: "Whoever said that 'plenty of fish in the sea' thing was lying. Sometimes there's only one fish."

Decent exploration of complicated issues. Another Kelley hallmark. From aging anchorwomen to adultery to the moral compromises practicing attorneys have to make, this show has really tried to think about some explosive issues, and not only from Ally's personal standpoint. Her character is often forced to see things from the other side's point of view.

Ally is a three-dimensional character in a TV world propagated with flat Rosses and Rachels. She's quirky enough to be endearing. When she says to herself, "Maybe I'm happy and I don't even know it," most of us can relate with her. Her character may always get caught up in this week's plot conflict, but she always takes some time to reflect on her future and the bigger issues of life.

That said, this show doesn't get the "woman thang" 100 percent right, perhaps because it's being written by a man. Take Ally's line, "I'm human. I'm temperamental. I'm guilty and I'm ovulating!" That's just a bit too stereotypical for my tastes.

Also, as to be expected, Ally doesn't spend very much time thinking about her work. (I know, I know, we watch TV to escape from the realities of work, but just once I'd really like to see her yelling at a legal assistant or poring over a document.) And like most professional working women characters on TV, she has a very difficult time balancing her work life and her lovelife. At one point she even says, "It was stupid to try to date and litigate in the same week."

But it's a minor quibble. If Kelley can lay off the PMS jokes, Ally McBeal will be a pleasurable way to forget about my Monday, not to mention Monday Night Football.


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