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Beautiful TV

The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal

By Greg M. Smith

Publication Year: 2007

During its five-year run from 1997 to 2002, the popular TV show Ally McBeal engaged viewers in debates over what it means to be a woman or a man in the modern workplace; how romance factors into the therapeutic understanding of relationships; what value eccentricity has and how much oddity society should tolerate; and what utility fantasy has in the pragmatic world. In addition to these social concerns, however, Ally McBeal stood out for being well-constructed, narratively complex, and stylistically rich—in short, beautiful TV. Starting from the premise that much of television today is "drop-dead gorgeous" and that TV should be studied for its formal qualities as well as its social impact, Greg M. Smith analyzes Ally McBeal in terms of its aesthetic principles and narrative construction. He explores how Ally's innovative use of music, special effects, fantasy sequences, voiceovers, and flashbacks structures a distinctive fictional universe, while it also opens up new possibilities for televisual expression. Smith also discusses the complex narrative strategies that Ally's creator David E. Kelley used to develop a long-running storyline and shows how these serial narrative practices can help us understand a wide range of prime-time TV serials. By taking seriously the art and argument of Ally McBeal, Beautiful TV conclusively demonstrates that aesthetic and narrative analysis is an indispensable key for unlocking the richness of contemporary television.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Cover Art

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Title Page

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p. i


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p. vii

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Introduction: Why Ally?

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pp. 1-16

Why read a book about a television series that is no longer being aired? Pop culture, by its very nature, moves on to the next hot item, feeding the hunger for the new. But eventually some television series become so old that they are “new” again and can be reclaimed as “classic,” gaining a second life as retro-hip artifacts replayed on TV Land1 or as nostalgic bulletins from simpler times for a more harried society (the widespread syndication of The Andy Griffith Show, for instance). ...


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p. 17

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1. Practical Music, Personal Fantasy: Creating a Community of Song in Ally McBeal

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pp. 19-46

More than any other contemporary American primetime television series, Ally McBeal experiments with the way music intersects with narrative. Ally’s music toys with the boundaries between diegetic and nondiegetic,1 interior and exterior, real and imaginary; and Ally serves as a virtual catalog of musical functions. Here I articulate the various ways this music is used, demonstrating the expanding range of lyrical devices used in contemporary television. ...

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2. Getting into Ally’s Head: Special Effects, Imagination, and the Voice of Doubt

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pp. 47-69

Ally McBeal uses a remarkable range of subjective techniques, some that are familiar, such as voiceover and flashback, and some that innovatively repurpose devices developed in other genres, such as special effects. The combined use of all these techniques gives Ally McBeal a distinctive construction. Unlike most shows with ensemble casts, Ally is remarkably centered on its protagonist (as the title would indicate). ...


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p. 71

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Three: Redeeming Ally: Seriality and the Character Network

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pp. 73-144

A long-running serial television narrative must maintain a precarious balance. It is difficult enough for the producers of a new television series to create a set of compelling new character relations that can capture a sizable viewing audience in its opening season.1 Once these relations are established, the serial must somehow undo them, because by definition the series must move forward. ...

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4. “Is It Possible to Love Somebody only Two days?”: Guest Stars and Eccentricity

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pp. 145-176

The makers of a television show rely on the emotional power of viewers’ connections to a network of familiar characters, thus enacting the thematic tensions of the series in their most dramatically weighted form. Events in a serial have power because they happen to characters in whom we have invested considerable time. ...

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5. Victim of Love: Ally McBeal and the Politics of Protection

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pp. 177-192

Early in the first season of Ally McBeal the law firm of Cage and Fish begins to gain a high profile in sexual harassment cases, and it maintains this specialty throughout the series. This narrow focus allows former lawyer and series creator David Kelley to explore fully the potential uses and misuses of the concept of sexual harassment, staging a public debate with himself between his liberal orientation and his fears about the expanding sphere of the law. ...

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pp. 193-200

Throughout this book I have pointed out the difficulty of performing the balancing act that Ally McBeal attempts—telling a continuing story using an ensemble cast so that primetime audiences find both individual episodes and the overall narrative involving. As I finish writing this book, it appears that changes in the economics of the American television industry are making this task increasingly challenging. ...

Episode List

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pp. 201-203


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pp. 205-251


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pp. 253-266


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pp. 267-275

E-ISBN-13: 9780292795082
E-ISBN-10: 0292795084
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292716421
Print-ISBN-10: 0292716427

Page Count: 285
Illustrations: 6 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 646733970
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Beautiful TV

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Ally McBeal (Television program).
  • Television -- Aesthetics.
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