DVD Review -- "Ally McBeal: The Complete Series"

Ally McBeal: Complete Series
The quirky court is now in session: "Ally McBeal" finally makes its DVD debut. (Fox)
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009; 12:00 AM

From the moment it debuted on Fox in 1997, "Ally McBeal" announced its offbeat, mini-skirted status as one of the defining television shows of the Clinton decade. At the time, David E. Kelley's dramedy about a self-absorbed, soulmate-seeking Boston attorney (Calista Flockhart) ignited much debate in the media and around water coolers nationwide, on questions that ranged from "Is Ally McBeal a True Feminist?" to "Unisex Bathrooms: Freaky or Excellent Opportunities for Office Bonding?"

But after it left the airwaves in 2002 -- following a flurry of strange plot developments (Ally -- a mom?) and departing cast members -- the chatter stopped. And the series, which has not aired in syndication for several years, settled quietly into its spot in the proverbial '90s pop culture museum, right next to exhibits on one-hit-wonder band Chumbawamba and those cuddly, vaguely creepy Furbys.

It's possible, though, that McBeal mania could rise again now that "Ally McBeal: The Complete Series" ($199.98) has arrived today for the first time on DVD. Unavailable for years in the U.S. because of issues surrounding music rights, all five seasons' worth of Ally's ultra-neurotic behavior, romantic entanglements and "Hooked on a Feeling"-infused encounters with the Dancing Baby can be found in this 32-disc set, which comes with, yes, all the original songs intact. In fact, to emphasize how much Fox values the music behind McBeal, a CD containing the best of the show's soundtrack is included in the package. (For those who prefer to collect this show in smaller increments, season one also arrives on DVD today for a more manageable price of $39.98.)

So let's talk good news first. Even if "Ally McBeal" is, culturally, sooo late '90s, the show's mix of courtroom drama with oddball humor and risque storylines (remember the episode when Flockhart and Lucy Liu kissed?) stands the test of time quite well, a testament to Kelley's vision and the strong ensemble of actors who worked on the show. Longtime fans will relish the chance to reunite with characters like Greg Germann's credo-spouting Richard Fish and Portia di Rossi's intimidating Nelle Porter, while newbies will marvel at the number of notable regulars and guest stars (Jane Krakowski, Robert Downey, Jr., Mariah Carey, Hayden Panettiere) that appeared throughout the series' run.

And now, the bad news. The DVD extras, all compiled on one disc in the "Complete Series" box set, pretty much stink. The only one worth watching is "Bygone Days: An 'Ally McBeal' Retrospective," a new, nearly 40-minute look at the show that allows Flockhart, Kelley, Krakowski and others to offer their take on everything from the creative process to that much-discussed Time magazine cover that featured Flockhart's face and the question: "Is Feminism Dead?" ("It was exciting to be a part of a show that made people think and to be provocative like that," Flockhart says. "But I also thought that comparing Ally McBeal to Susan B. Anthony was ludicrous.")

The rest of the special features consist of previously aired clip shows, a music video from the show's signature songstress, Vonda Shepard, and the episode of "The Practice" that introduced the character Ally McBeal, thereby putting the wheels in motion for this spin-off. But that's IT. This collection offers no deleted scenes, no outtakes and not one single commentary track, which is shocking for a show as beloved as this one. I mean, even the third season of "Mr. Belvedere" comes with episode commentaries.

It's unclear whether the absence of audio is a function of studio budget constraints or difficulties with scheduling recording sessions that synched up with the actors' schedules. But if Ally McBeal were still practicing law, surely even she would consider this lack of commentary tracks a grave injustice of the highest order.

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