Tuesday, May 08, 2007

In Defense of Ally

Where have all the good women gone?

That was the only question I was left with after watching last week's episode of "Grey's Anatomy." Once a devoted viewer, I only catch the show sporadically now--usually tuning in just often enough to be utterly confused by the plot line. (What...Izzie slept with George?!?!) But I was kind of curious about the new spin-off, and Taye Diggs is on it, so what the hell?

The entire two hour episode of the reigning chick show fluctuated between the female characters at Seattle Grace obsessing about their failing relationships and upcoming marriages, and the female characters at the Los Angeles wellness clinic obsessing about their failed relationships and inability to get pregnant.

In the most painful scene from the episode, the main character breaks down in a hospital stairwell after successfully performing a life-saving surgery. Pouring her heart out to her potential love interest, she wails that she feels "dried up" and "barren," two phrases surely guaranteed to bring the boys a-runnin'.

Then, in perhaps the worst line of dialogue ever intended to sweep a woman off her feet, the potential love interest says, "I'm going to kiss you now. With tongue. So you feel it."

"Ok," she dazedly responds, clearly swept away by the romantic impetuousness of his declaration.

Are we really supposed to believe that we are most attractive to men when we're on the verge of a nervous breakdown? I guess it's lucky for us then that emotional distress is so easily cured with a little bit of good tongue kissing.

In a New York Times review of the episode, Alessandra Stanley laid it all at the feet of "Ally McBeal." Ally, she argues, was the beginning of the end--the cultural turning point where sex-starved basket case became the new female model.

I've always been a defender of Ally, since I was a bona fide fan of the show for the first couple of seasons. After all, pop culture has always embraced adorably daffy career gals as its heroines. Ally wasn't the first, she was just the most extreme example to date. The ladies of "Sex in the City" also took some heat for spending so much time talking about guys despite being successful career women. Again, that part never really bothered me. I have a number of extremely bright, career-oriented female friends, and I know we spend more time talking about relationships than the stock market.

The thing is that we relate to these fictional women not because they're perfect models of feminist ideals, but because (just like us!) they're works in progress. They struggle with figuring out really matters, juggling intelligence and ambition with the desire for boys to like them. They just do it in bigger apartments and with better shoes. I always felt that the best female characters possess an inner well of strength that ennobles them even while they're breaking down.

No matter how her heart had been broken or how Mr. Big had done her wrong, Carrie Bradshaw would strap on her Manolos and strut down that New York City sidewalk. Buffy didn't curl up in a fetal position after sending her boyfriend to a Hell dimension; she got up the next day and kicked some more vampire ass. Even poor, scrawny, neurotic Ally usually ended each episode on an optimistic note, rocking out to yet another Vonda Shepard song or cavorting with her imaginary baby.

The difference between those characters and the women of "Grey's" is that they never seem to get off the mat. A show that started out as a dramedy about young doctors is now about women who exist in a persistent state of distress over their annoyingly nicknamed boyfriend du jour. There's a fine line between relatable and pathetic.

Even sadder is that several of the remaining good female characters in TV land are disappearing from the airwaves. Those fast-talking Gilmore Girls will not be returning to Stars Hollow next season, and Veronica Mars' tough-as-nails teenage detective is fighting for her life. Apparently, a modern-day Nancy Drew who lives by her wits can't compete with a reality show that equates female empowerment with the ability to bend your leg behind your head.

Maybe those wannabe Dolls can find a new career path in Seattle as wannabe surgeons?