How Would Ally Do It?

HER NAME IS ALLY MCBEAL, AND she's rapidly becoming the woman network execs have long lusted after: the '90s answer to Mary Tyler Moore. A Harvard law graduate with a promising career, 27-year-old Ally has the ability to both inspire and repel. She claims to want to use the law for good, but almost all of her waking hours are preoccupied by her desire to snag a man. ""If women really wanted to change society, they could do it,'' she tells her roommate. ""I plan to change society. I just want to get married first.'' Ally is the quintessential postfeminist. She has all the professional advantages Mary never had, but unlike her more traditionally feminist sitcom sister, she doesn't want to make it on her own.

Only 13 episodes into its first season, the Fox comedy-drama has already become a TV phenomenon on Monday nights. Critics seem to either love it or hate it. In GQ, Terrence Rafferty snipes that ""TV's Ally McBeal wants to be the thinking man's sex kitten--if only she had a brain.'' Yet ""Ally'' recently won two Golden Globes: one for best comedy series (beating out such favorites as ""Seinfeld'' and ""Mad About You'') and a best-actress award for the show's star, Calista Flockhart. But the real proof that we're in an Ally moment is the show's steady rise in the ratings; about 14 million women tune in regularly, and the show recently broke into the Nielsen top 25.

""Ally'' has clearly struck a nerve with twentysomething women who feel both excited and confused by the choices bestowed upon them by the feminist movement. They understand Ally's big question: ""If I have it all, can I be happy?'' The show doesn't offer up many answers, but it does provide comic relief, commiseration and the occasional insight, just as Mary once did. It captures the sense of anxious expectation that people feel in their 20s, when most of life's important decisions still lie ahead. Ally works hard (allegedly) and plays hard (definitely), but what she does more than anything else is dream. And lest you dismiss the show as a purely female indulgence, along the lines of a Saturday night curled up with a pint of Ben & Jerry's, an issue of Cosmopolitan and a bottle of Nair, think again. ""Ally'' has male fans--nearly 6 million, according to one estimate. Maybe they sense Ally's secret: her creator is a man, David Kelley, who has also written every episode.

To probe the sources of Ally's allure, NEWSWEEK assembled a panel of experts: eight unmarried professional women in their 20s from her hometown, Boston. Her appeal, they all agreed, is personal, not professional. ""I identify with Ally because she worries,'' says Helen Temelkovski, a 24-year-old graduate student. ""That's how I am. She's not quite sure of herself. Like Ally, I feel entirely unraveled a lot of the time.'' Katie Thatcher, a 28-year-old lawyer, says: ""She's trying to figure it out. It's like watching someone kind of bump around in bumper cars.''

It helps not to take Ally McBeal seriously as a lawyer, according to our panel. ""Teenagers might think that's what working in a law firm is like,'' warns Donna Domagala, a 24-year-old law student. ""It looks like you're going to stand around and gossip with your co-workers, who are all your age. You're going to hang around after work, and you're going to wear these great outfits. And that's just not the way it is.'' Angelique Magliulo is a real-life Ally McBeal: a 27-year-old associate at Bingham, Dana, a major Boston law firm. ""A lot of us at my firm watch it religiously,'' she says. ""We don't watch it as a show about law. We watch it as a comedy about this neurotic woman who makes us feel better about ourselves.''

Which is not to say that Ally doesn't have her courtroom triumphs. While most young associates toil away in the library writing briefs, Ally showboats like a character out of a John Grisham novel, telling everyone exactly what she thinks. ""I was thinking during one courtroom scene that I couldn't imagine someone actually addressing a judge like that,'' says Kathryn Loebs, a 28-year-old lawyer. ""But I would just love to do it. You think it would feel sooo good to do that.''

But what fans really savor is the anxious and insecure Ally. In one episode, she admits that sitting in on big meetings in the company boardroom intimidates her. The camera then cuts to an Ally daydream where she sees herself, Lily Tomlin-like, as a little girl in a really big chair. It's what many feminist authors have referred to as the ""impostor'' syndrome, women's nagging fear that their success is a sham and that one day they will be exposed. ""The show is really bold because it allows Ally to be weak and vulnerable,'' says Magliulo. ""In fact, today I was handing in an assignment and this partner says to me, "You look nervous.' And I said, "Well, you know, I'm handing in my first assignment to a really, really big partner.' And his first reaction was "You've got to toughen up. You've got to have a thick skin in this profession'.''

Ally definitely isn't thick-skinned. And she doesn't get much help from her friends. The show's women lawyers engage in intense rounds of female rivalry that range from friendly (Ally's roommate, Renee, is also a lawyer) to downright vicious. Ally's main nemesis is Georgia, a beautiful lawyer who also happens to be married to Ally's ex-boyfriend, a partner in her firm. She desperately wants what Georgia seems to have: a happy marriage and a successful career. No matter how many times Ally wins in the courtroom, Georgia still trumps her in the bedroom. Like Ally, many young working women are actually playing on two fields, one where they compete against both men and women, and another where they compete solely against other women their age. ""I compare myself more to women than to men because I just assume that men have more doors open to them,'' says Magliulo. ""But when I see a woman who's really successful, I go, "Wow, how did she do that? What does she have that I don't have? How come she got this? How come I didn't know about this opportunity? What's wrong with me?' It always comes back to this huge comparison.''

The show's most celebrated episode dealt with the professional woman's thorniest issue: when to have kids. In a scene that has become iconic, Ally dances with a computer-generated baby who has a serious case of Saturday-night fever. The baby follows Ally around as a reminder of her ticking biological clock. ""It makes me think about my mom,'' says Lainchen Friese, a 30-year-old human-resources consultant. ""She had three kids before she was 30. I want to have kids, and I prefer not to be 80 when they graduate from college.''

Guys who watch ""Ally'' also identify with her insecurities; feminism has given men some confusing choices as well. The show's famous unisex bathroom symbolizes this blurring of sex roles (it's the new water cooler, where both men and women meet to gossip). ""Emotionally, I've been through a lot of similar feelings to Ally,'' says Neil Kirby, a 28-year-old video editor and animator in Livonia, Mich., who watches with his wife. ""I had a roommate when I was single, and we would discuss our hopes and fears, like "Are we ready? Is she the one? Is it going to work?' '' When he arrives at work on Tuesday mornings, a colleague greets Kirby with a low-pitched ""oo-ga cha-ka, oo-ga cha-ka''--the Dancing Baby's theme music. It's a sign that he caught the previous night's episode and is ready to discuss it.

Like Ally, many of the women who watch the show find that romance is much more elusive than professional success. Even when her boss assures her that ""everyone is lonely, it's just easier to take in a relationship,'' finding a soulmate remains the brass ring for Ally, as it does for many of her fans. Of the long hours she puts in at the office, lawyer Kathryn Loebs says: ""This isn't exactly the way I saw my life playing out. If all this is being put off, then I want a great marriage. I want him to knock my socks off. I want him to blow me away. And I'll wait, because I'm waiting for that kind of thing.'' No doubt about it, Ally would relate.