Season Three of Ally McBeal marked a downward trend for the popular show. Its ratings were flagging and it seemed its audience was tiring of Ally and company’s surreal shenanigans.
Season Four changed all that. The two sock-o romantic stories which opened the season didn’t hurt. First there was Ally’s emotional breakup with Brian, then her rebound romance with an older man AND his son. But true love reared its head the minute Larry Paul entered the picture. Their relationship got off to a fabulous start with Ally mistaking Larry for a therapist setting up his practice in her law firm’s office building. Her assumption inspired her to confide her relationship troubles to him before discovering he was a lawyer, just like her. So began the most fun, romantic, heartbreaking romance in the history of the show.
Robert Downey, Jr., who up until this point was exclusively a film actor, played Ally’s love interest, Larry. These two had chemistry with a capital ‘C’. Their scenes crackled and sizzled and lit up the screen; it wouldn’t have been a total surprise if they crashed and burned. Eventually their end did come but it wasn’t nearly as explosive. It might have been better if it was.
The season had its share of strangeness: from Mark Albert (James LeGros) falling for a transexual (played with astonishing believability by Lisa Edelstein), who revealed the truth about herself to Mark in a subtle yet powerful way. John Cage, the shy, nose whistling wimp (except in the courtroom, where he was powerful and eloquent) attempted to impress his love interest, Kimmie, by acting the rock star on the stage of the local bar. Talk about going against character! John later took up with Melanie (Ann Heche), who suffered from Tourettes.
Barry Manilow and Sting made appearances: Barry as one of Ally’s hallucinations, and Sting as a client of Larry Paul.
As in past seasons, music played a big role. Vonda Shepard was the house diva, while members of the cast took their turn at the bar’s mic. Then there was Larry Paul at the piano turning in a version of Joni Mitchell’s “River”, which was poignant and heartbreaking, foreshadowing the sadness of the season finale.
Through it all, the best scenes belonged to Ally and Larry. The fact that Larry missed his son, who lived with his ex in Detroit, was a major obstacle in the Larry-Ally relationship. Eventually they worked it out and the producers planned to have the couple wed during the season finale. In the end, the title of that finale episode, The Wedding, was all that remained of the producers’ good intentions. Robert Downey, Jr.’s sudden departure from the show (stemming from his drug problems and subsequent arrest) forced the writers to come up with an alternate ending at the eleventh hour.
The finale was tremendously sad and much less satisfying than it might have been had Downey, Jr.’s situation been different. But the writers deserve credit for coming up with a decent story under pressure. After losing one of the most loved characters of any season of Ally, it could not have been fun rewriting that episode.
The Wedding introduced Josh Groban to an unsuspecting public. He of the golden throat made his television debut as Malcolm Wyatt, a teenager suing a girl for reneging on her promise to go to the prom with him. Ally was his lawyer. Since the girl was represented by Larry Paul, who had abruptly left for Detroit to be with his son, the case was dropped. In the end, a brokenhearted Ally had a talk with the ghost of her dead boyfriend, Billy, who convinced her to go to the prom as Malcolm’s date. Encouraged by Ally, Malcolm found the courage to take the stage at the prom to sing “You’re Still You”. The episode ended on a hopeful note, putting forth the message to never stop believing in love.
It took years for this and other seasons of Ally McBeal to be made available on DVD. Getting the rights to the great wealth of music used in the show was difficult. Now that the sets are out the only quibble I have is the lack of extras. It would have been nice if behind the scenes footage or insights from the writers or producers had been included.
Many long running TV shows have a special season or two: those that can be watched and enjoyed even if one is not familiar with what went before. Season Four of Ally McBeal is just such a season.