Ally McBeal

by KE Monahan Huntley


"When you just give love, and never get love
You'd better let love depart. I know it's so, and yet I know
I can't get you out of my heart."

David E. Kelley's Ally McBeal opens with music that articulates his hapless heroine's "emotional conscience" and provides the show's theme: "unrelenting love."

Signpost 1

"I sense the ick" Ally McBeal (main character) announces to roommate Renee with trepidation. In regard to the matter under consideration (relationship story concern-conscious)--a romance between Ally and her boss--the waifish attorney's fixed state of mind (rs domain) is quite evident. Why this is problematic is delineated as she analyzes (mc thematic issue) her beau:


Look, why don't you just go through with the date?


Because, then he'll blame himself. I know John Cage (influence character), he'll think that he did something wrong, and if I cancel the date then he'll think he's something wrong. What's better? To blow it or not stand a chance? (rs symptom-induction) . . . Maybe it would be easier on him just to go on one date. I could be really, really, boring and he would lose interest (male mental sex-cause and effect).

A desirable male John Cage is not. His very shortcomings (ic unique ability-deficiency), however, make it impossible for Ally to back up the truck and "just dump him." Outright rejection (rs problem-non-acceptance) would be just too cruel.

John's thematic issue of expediency is illustrated in the law firm's meeting to determine (story driver-decision) what cases to take. Much to the surprise of the associates he hurries up his partner, Richard Fish, in an effort to be alone with Ally:


Seymore Little . . . He was deemed mentally incompetent two years ago. . . . He's a bit of a cracker, but of course since we represent the cracker we won't be taking that position. He wants to marry--his son thinks the woman's really after his money . . . (objective story domain-universe).


Oh balls! Move on.

Fish rebukes "The Biscuit": "That kind of blatant disrespect in there is unacceptable" (ic problem-nonacceptance), but ire soon turns to curiosity: "Okay. Bygones." John Cage, usually a study in deliberation (ic domain-psychology), is behaving quite out of character. He tells Fish:


I feel a waffle. She's retreating . . . . Something has occasioned her emotional recalcitrance.

His doubts (rs catalyst) about the impending relationship are just the invitation Fish needs to dish his ideas (ic concern-conceiving) on how to woo: "For God's sakes, kiss her!"

Ally introduces herself to Seymore Little and his intended. He contemptuously attempts (os thematic counterpoint) to dismiss her: "No real lawyer wears a short skirt like that! I want pants (mc critical flaw-repulsion). Ally sets aside her reverence for the artist: "No. You want me, you take me the way I'm dressed" (mc approach-doer). Fish avoids the potential (os problem) loss of a famous client by assigning Ally's ex-boyfriend, Billy, as co-counsel.

They discuss the circumstances of the case (os domain-universe):


And since he has a legal guardian, the court says he has no capacity to consent to marriage.


And my son won't give the consent.


But we're told we can get it by a court order.


. . . He's trying (os thematic counterpoint-attempt) to control me! All I want to do is to get married and open a little gallery and he won't let me!

Using inductive reasoning (os symptom), Ally and Billy ruminate in the unisex bathroom:


She wants his money.


Well, they didn't exactly look like a perfect match.

The discussion turns to Ally and John's date: "Speaking of strange bedfellows"--but John's remote toilet flusher (ic thematic issue-deficiency) interrupts Billy's questioning of Ally's interest in the odd fellow. They next meet with Seymore Little's son, who explains his father's past (os benchmark) actions that resulted in the guardianship:


He still talks to my mother. She's been dead for seven years. He has conversations with her.


Well that doesn't necessarily make him incompetent. Lots of people speak to the dead.


Yes, well, she speaks back. Last July she asked for a boat. He bought her a $300,000 yacht. . . . He's not moving past (os requirement) my mother's death.

He further explains his mother was the love of Seymore's life-that "There are some loves that just don't go away." This assertion taps into Ally's physics domain--her endeavor to reconcile with Billy (despite the fact of his wife, Georgia), or to at least understand (mc benchmark) why she cannot sustain a romantic relationship (mc symptom-induction).

Signpost 2

Ally explains to Seymore the lawsuit's potential (os problem) failure:


Mr. Little, the judge might view communication with a dead person as a form of mental unfitness.

Seymore, despite an unlikely win, wants to go forward (os catalyst-attempt).

John Cage, in the meantime, confesses to Fish he is a "poor kisser"--a potential (ic problem) dating hazard. Fish suggests he query Billy (rs thematic issue-investigation), who "grew up kissing Ally" for intimate advice. Billy, who clearly has unresolved feelings for Ally, expresses his opinion. Courting co-workers may be convenient for the law partner, but he feels it quite inappropriate (rs inhibitor-expediency):


As senior partner, it doesn't make a lot of sense for you to be dating associates.


I had only planned to date one, but I appreciate your candor.

Ally and Billy meet with Paula and Sam to work (os thematic issue) out a way of avoiding the next morning's court hearing. As Paula is amenable to signing a prenuptial agreement, the attorneys must deduct (os response) the most obvious reason from the whys and wherefores of the marriage:


She can't be a golddigger if she's willing to give up his whole estate . . . what are we missing?

Signpost 3

Outside the courtroom, Billy gives Ally a smile and words of (professional) encouragement that spins her into a daydream swoon. In her mind she makes quite a production (mc problem) out of any hint of affection from Billy. While Ally is in court, John prepares for their dateĀ­lip-synching and dancing to Barry White (ic benchmark-conceptualizing). Fish summons Elaine's help in teaching John how to kiss-afterwards he gasps: "I need ice."

Seymore falters under questioning, prompting Ally to take Paula aside to find out: "What is going on, and don't tell me how much you love him."


All he wants is to open a little place--paint pictures of his wife, Gail. Maybe sell some. But his son doesn't think he's either competent or capable so he says "No." . . . Well, if we get married, in time I could be named guardian. And I could let him open his little shop.

Seymore's talent has deteriorated. His son feels he can't let him open a gallery as his father's recent, inferior work may damage (os problem-potential) the artist's renowned reputation and the dollar value placed on his work (os thematic issue):

Sam: My father is maybe the most important American impressionist of the century. . . . Every night my father would pray that he'd leave behind him two things, my mother--he couldn't bear of the thought of her dying first--and his artistic legacy . . . his reputation, that I can help preserve. And I will.

Ally and John Cage set out:


Boring, narcissistic, and we're off.

On the dance floor, Ally thinks: "God, I'm stuck in 70's hell and I can't get out. And he's having a great time (rs domain-mind). John acts on his impulse (rs journey 3-preconscious) to kiss Ally--inadvertently knocking her to the street.

Signpost 4

Next morning, Ally raps on Seymore's door:


Skirtless! You make housecalls (mc approach-do-er).


I'm here trying (os thematic counterpoint-attempt) to figure out what you really, really want. Mr. Little, tell me what you want.


What I've always wanted. To paint what I feel and share it (os thematic issue-work).


And all you paint is her.

John and Ally, each deep in thought, knock each other off their feet:


I suppose we're even. . . . Ally, I replayed the date several times and I realized your cosmetic babbling was designed to incur my disinterest. You're a very sensitive person (rs domain-conscious).


Sometimes I just know that it's not a match (mc resolve-steadfast), even when I don't know the Why? part. . . . It could be that you and I work together. It could be that you're kind and I need someone who will be miserable to me and, and, it could be . . .


That you're in love with somebody else (rs solution-acceptance).

Ally makes her closing argument--its meaning not lost on Billy:


He still loves his wife. He wants to continue experiencing it and sharing it. And maybe that makes him crazy but we should all be so lucky to end up with somebody who has a little bit of that insanity, somebody who never lets you go, somebody who cherishs you, forever. Talk about a legacy, loving somebody forever, that's a legacy. You want his world to go on, Sam. So does he (os goal-present).


I'll have to figure out the logistics but, I believe I can construe a guardianship that allows him to open shop (story limit-optionlock).


Your Honor, nobody here wants to seem him get hurt.


I see that (os solution-certainty). That's why I think it'll work (outcome-success).

Billy approaches Ally-who obviously has not stopped (mc growth) loving him--with the question:


Will you ever forgive my letting go?


I forgive it. But I'm still not sure I'll ever understand (mc benchmark) it.


Ally walks home alone, drifting to the melancholy lyrics of her alter ego (story judgment-bad):

"Why does my heart go on beating?
Why do these eyes of mine cry?
Don't they know it's the end of the world?
It ended when you said good-bye."

About the Author

KE Monahan Huntley is an editor and publisher based in Southern California. As one of the original contributors to Dramatica, she helped edit and analyze many of the examples. In addition, her numerous articles provided an insightful "conversational" approach to the theory. Today she can be found at Write Between the Lines or follow her on Twitter @kemhuntley.

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