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[whitespace] Ally McBeal
Thinking Man's Sewer Mouth: Calista Flockhart knows how to talk dirty and influence horny TV critics on 'Ally McBeal.'

Photo by Mike Jones

They're gorgeous, they're talented--so why are the single white females of prime-time comedy so bad?

By Zack Stentz

EUROPA MAY HAVE let herself be carried off by a bull, and supermodels may marry hideously ugly rock stars, but this sad fact remains: to my knowledge, no television critic has ever successfully dated a gorgeous young TV starlet. So why, then, do so many TV writers persist in turning their articles into thinly veiled mash notes to their favorite on-air Hot Young Thing?

This "criticism by erectile response" model would seem to belittle unfairly the talent and erudition of our nation's tube reviewers, but it's the only way to explain the inexplicable praise heaped on such deplorable shows as Dharma and Greg, Suddenly Susan and Ally McBeal.

Like so much else that's wrong with American television, this pernicious trend can be blamed on Friends--in particular, the 1995 episode that featured the stunt-casting of Brooke Shields. Because Shields managed to play the role of a psycho stalker girlfriend without completely embarrassing herself, television writers fell all over each other in a rush to trumpet her heretofore undiscovered comic talents--as if anyone could forget the rich vein of comedy she mined in The Blue Lagoon and Brenda Starr.

An NBC series offer followed, and so Friends begat Suddenly Susan, which begat Fired Up, which begat--God help us--Jenny. Yes, even Jenny McCarthy, whose talents (aside from her front-mounted, silicone-enhanced ones) seem to consist entirely of scrunching up her face and channeling the spirit of a frat boy who binge-drank himself to death in 1988, receives kudos for being some kind of poststructuralist sexpot--as if she were the first gorgeous actress to mock her own beauty.

Despite the plaudits, however, the erstwhile Singled Out hostess has also been subjected to an insidious form of McCarthyism. Other writers, in their eagerness to demonstrate their immunity to the charms of the flesh, have ganged up on the unfortunate Jenny and panned her show mercilessly. The fact that they hate McCarthy even while discreetly leering over Dharma and Greg's equally beautiful, equally unfunny Jenna Elfman (more on her later) highlights the hypocrisy involved.

And when referring to their latest lust objects, critics just love to trot out the self-negating phrase "thinking-man's bombshell," which is actually code for "beautiful woman with dark hair and smallish breasts."

Exhibit A is the lovely Téa Leoni, who parlayed reasonably competent comedic turns in the films Bad Boys and Flirting With Disaster into her own NBC sitcom, The Naked Truth. Since that show's premiere three years ago, the gamine Leoni has been feted by critics as Lucille Ball reincarnated in Uma Thurman's body. The only problem with the anointment: The Naked Truth is one of the worst-written shows on TV, despite annual retooling and more staff purges than Saddam Hussein's cabinet of advisors.

Not that that's slowed the NBC honchos' feverish copying of the formula. The 1997 season offers a particularly target-rich environment for self-appointed Thinking Men Seeking Bombshells. As Leoni herself once noted, "I'm not sure how many 30-year-old white chicks there's room for on television."

Flirting With Disaster
Casting Call: Téa Leoni flashed Ben Stiller a little leg in 'Flirting With Disaster' and ended up with her own sitcom, 'The Naked Truth.'

Photo by Barry Wetcher

PREVIOUSLY SHIELDED by its position within NBC's impregnable Thursday lineup of Fortress Must-See TV, The Naked Truth was shifted this season to Monday, where, as if to answer Leoni's rhetorical question, it's part of an evening that consists of four sitcoms anchored by thirtyish white chicks.

Suddenly Susan (Shields), Fired Up (Sharon Lawrence), Caroline in the City (Lea Thompson) and The Naked Truth follow one after the other in a mind-numbing torrent of perfect teeth, long legs and abominably bad punch lines and pratfalls.

The good news: NBC is getting killed Monday night, as formerly Top-10 shows sink down into the 50s or below. The bad news: one of the shows doing the killing is Fox's Ally McBeal, which in many ways is even worse than the white chick-athon it's up against.

Created by former L.A. Law writer and Picket Fences mastermind David Kelley, Ally McBeal (Fox, Mondays at 9pm) was commissioned by Fox explicitly as a bid to retain as many of Melrose Place's coveted female 18- to 45-year-old viewers as possible.

The strategy worked brilliantly. Ally McBeal actually improves on Melrose's numbers. Even better for the respect-starved Fox, the critics have come on board as well, praising the show's alleged formal inventiveness (fantasy sequences that dramatize McBeal's inner life) and realistic portrayal of a young woman's perspective.

Stripped of Kelley's trademark stylistic self-indulgences, the program is basically a cross between those two signature shows of the 1980s: L.A. Law and thirtysomething. The titular character is a Harvard-trained lawyer, but the program is far less interested in Ally's courtroom heroics than in this young, smart, beautiful and privileged woman's constant angst, all of which is set to the tune of a sub-Lilith Fair folk-blues soundtrack.

Yet critics seem so besotted by star Calista Flockhart's fetching looks and highbrow pedigree (Fox plucked her straight from doing Chekhov on Broadway) that they're saluting McBeal as some kind of feminist breakthrough. Never mind that the show's dialogue is redolent of a middle-aged man imagining what young women talk about among themselves. To Mr. Kelley, this amounts to lots of scenes of Ally and her roommate, Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson, the saucy assistant prosecutor and obligatory black sidekick), chatting about their vaginas.

Not that matters improve on the few occasions Ally is actually shown practicing law. The holiday episode in which McBeal befriended and tried to help a young transvestite prostitute she's defending (played by My So-Called Life's Wilson Cruz) was numbingly conventional in its execution, right down to the homosexual's tragic yet inevitable demise in the final act.

In typical Kelley fashion, the writer dressed up this Children's Hour-style blather with a whimsical subplot concerning a lawyer fighting to honor his dead uncle's request to insult short people at his funeral. The climax? A full gospel choir belting out "Short People." When Randy Newman appears on the soundtrack, that's when I reach for my remote.

OVER AT ABC, the situation's not much better. Their one certified semi-hit of 1997 is Dharma and Greg, whose star, Jenna Elfman, has her own folder full of adulatory press clippings. In this case, though, it's hard to tell whether Dharma and Greg is aimed more at women or at the fantasies of every male former economics major who was ever turned down for a date by a drama chick in college.

The Premise: free-spirited second-generation hippie woman impulsively marries straight-laced WASP man; hilarity ensues as the pair's contrasting world views clash, with all problems conveniently resolved at the end of each episode by wonderful sex.

The Message: no matter how boring a guy you are, you can still marry an adorable hippie girl, albeit one who shaves her pits, has no discernible politics and won't give your inheritance to Earth First! and then run off with the bass player from Blues Traveler.

But in an age when lefty journal The Nation sounds off in praise of the Spice Girls, women too are getting taken in by this male, Esquire-reading wish-fulfillment masquerading as girl power.

"Now, at last, on the brink of the 21st century, television and the men who watch have made that small step for a man but a huge step for a network in not just acknowledging that women can be funny and pretty at the same time but falling in love with them for it," wrote First Wives' Club author Olivia Goldsmith in a recent edition of The New York Times as she singled out Ally McBeal and Dharma and Greg for praise.

A ruling-class fossil like Goldsmith can perhaps be forgiven for being out of it, but the fact that a woman's funniness has a direct relationship to her beauty isn't exactly a state secret. Consider the case of two acquaintances of mine from several years back. Both were women, but one was extremely pretty and the other wasn't.

Looks aside, the two shared a fondness for telling jokes, stories and personal anecdotes that were off-color enough to make a Teamster blush. The attractive woman's risqué comments about her bodily functions, personal hygiene and sexual misadventures were of course thought hilarious, and she had men lined up to laugh at her jokes. And the less attractive woman who talked about farting, menstrual flow and her graphic sexual fantasies? She was just considered gross.

If you don't think this double standard exists, try a little thought experiment. The next time you're curled up in front of the TV, laughing along with the laugh track as Ally or Dharma or one of NBC's Stepford stars cracks wise about her yeast infection or difficulty in achieving orgasm, ask yourself, Would this joke be as funny if uttered by, say, Roseanne?

Of course, there's nothing wrong with enjoying looking at pretty people on television. After all, watching folks more attractive than oneself being mean to each other has made Aaron Spelling a very rich man. And I'd be lying if I said I'd enjoy my own favorite shows just as much if Agent Scully looked more like Joe Friday or if Buffy were less than buffed.

But I'm not so blind as to think casting a beautiful woman in a lead television role is a daring artistic choice, and no matter how many nice things I write about them, I know Gillian Anderson or Sarah Michelle Gellar will never ask me out on a date.

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From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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