High Heels, Low Esteem

RESUME FOR A TV CHARACTER female viewers can identify with: beautiful, smart, successful . . . emotional train wreck. For many women, that relatable mix of professional success and personal mess has made two of this season's breakout shows--""Ally McBeal'' and ""Veronica's Closet''--must-she TV.

You may have already met Fox's leggy new role model. Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) is a Harvard law grad, confident in the courtroom, with a penchant for short skirts. She also has an active inner life. Very active. Her vivid daydreams are the central gimmick of the show. (A device shamelessly lifted by ""Ally'' creator David E. Kelley from HBO's ""Dream On.'') An ex-boyfriend works at her new law firm. He suggests coffee. Cut to her fantasy of the two of them frolicking together in a cappuccino hot tub. When she finds out he's married, cut to her being pierced in the heart by arrows. Her interior monologues reveal just how heavy Ally's caseload of neuroses really is. ""I just had to follow him to law school. I didn't even want to be a lawyer.'' Is this a television show or a therapy session?

""Ally McBeal'' is drama with comedy. NBC's ""Veronica's Closet'' is comedy about drama--a drama queen. Hysterical in both senses of the word, Veronica (Kirstie Alley) is an ex-model who owns a lingerie catalog and was, until now, its sexy cover girl. Veronica's secret is that because she's now too, uh, old and fat to model the stuff in her own catalog, her head has to be computer-grafted onto the bodies of lithe 22-year-olds. She's also in mid-divorce from a Lothario angling for a big chunk of her fortune. Him squeezing her for cash is a feminist-friendly role reversal, compensation for the retrograde body-image and aging issues that plague Veronica. The age-discrimination button has been pushed on ""Ally,'' too, with her representing a TV anchor played, with genius casting, by Kate Jackson. Even young Xers watching must have felt the chill of that cold reality: If one of Charlie's Angels is already considered over the hill, how long before I am?

Alley and Ally aren't the only conflicted chicks getting air time. There's ""Caroline in the City,'' ""Fired Up,'' ""Suddenly Susan.'' (NBC's entire Monday night is aimed at upscale football widows.) Sitcoms have long targeted women; what changes is the image in the mirror they hold up. From June Cleaver and Lucy Ricardo up to Mary Tyler Moore and Murphy Brown. From the perfect to the imperfect wife; from the struggling career girl to the powerful career woman. The '90s TV woman's problem isn't the glass ceiling, it's the glass slipper: she's still waiting for Prince Charming. ""Both Ally McBeal and Veronica are strong, intelligent women in the workplace,'' says Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation. ""But when the shows move to relationships and body image, they fall into more stereotypical fare . . . Our reaction is basically, "Yeah! Boo!' ''

Conveniently, Prince Charming--or some slick frog--always seems to be loitering around the water cooler. The words ""office'' and ""romance'' are seldom far apart in the relationship lexicon of the she-TV shows. On ""Susan,'' Brooke Shields is a cub reporter dogged by her editor-boss, Judd Nelson. On ""Caroline,'' she's the boss sexually harassing her assistant, Richard. The idea that women can't separate work and play is a handy comic ruse, but that doesn't make it any less insulting.

You call this progress? The younger sisters of Murphy Brown have their priorities reversed. ""Murphy was a hard, ambitious woman whose only interest was having a career. Later she discovered that she wanted a private life,'' says Gary Dontzig, an executive producer of ""Suddenly Susan,'' previously of ""Murphy Brown.'' ""Susan had a personal life, then decided she wanted a career.'' Murphy has resisted the temptation to jump her male co-workers. (Pee-wee Herman, briefly her boy Friday, would not have been amused.) And she would never have whined, as Ally does, that ""love and law are the same: romantic in concept, but the actual practice can give you a yeast infection.'' Hello! There's such a thing as sharing too much.