Television Review: Ally McBeal

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The Independent Culture
"DO YOU ever worry about being sexually adequate," one man asks another in the executive washroom. "No," the other replies, "I know I'm good". "How?" the first one says plaintively. "Cos I'm always satisfied," says the other blithely. "It's good for me." And then, in a perfect grace note to this vignette of male egotism, he lobs his paper towel into the bin and whispers an exultant "Yesss!" The man in question is Ally McBeal's (C4) cheerfully amoral boss, something of a hero of mine as the only character in the series who never wastes his time (or ours) interrogating his motives - he doesn't really need to as they are green all over and carry pictures of American presidents.

The anxious inquiry, incidentally, had been provoked by office gossip about the endowments of a male model at the sculpting class Ally attends - "I think I'm going to need some more clay," she says in stunned tones, once she has recovered the power of speech. It formed part of an engaging episode which used a boxing match and a case of criminal assault to meditate on the frayed state of American manhood - trying to kick the testosterone habit but sneaking off for a quick hit now and then (literally in the case of the young man up in court after punching his girlfriend's ex). Actually, "meditate" is altogether too generous - these things were in it and if you chose to work them up into some kind of thesis, then no one would get in your way. In its loose insinuation, the episode had the feel of one of those education packs which offers material for class discussion, and which pretends at openness but subtly steers the pupil to a desired conclusion. If I understood the broad flow correctly, size does matter and passing out summa cum laude from Yale will never quite match the thrill of knocking down the big bully in the bar-room. Oh, and women might moan about the atavistic blood-lust with which men watch boxing matches, but secretly it turns them on.

This was also the episode which featured the dancing baby, a pixellated hallucination which has since launched a successful solo career as a computer screensaver. The baby was truly creepy - a succubus in a nappy who announces its arrival with a kind of tribal chant and who scutters around beneath Ally's bed at night in a way which would make any genuine New Yorker phone immediately for an exterminator. As visual effects go, it had a certain loathesome charm, but it couldn't match the real achievement of this episode, which was to come up with a new cinematic metaphor for male sexual climax. We've had bursting fireworks, vaulting champagne spume and crashing waves and now we can add to the repertoire the rope of spittle which flies from a boxer's mouth when his gumshield is knocked out. Filmed in slow-motion parody of the fight sequences from Raging Bull, this scene was intercut with Ally enjoying a piece of male flesh, more precisely the piece that had caused all the gossip earlier - and it made me laugh out loud with its pertinent audacity. I can see now how some people have become hooked.

A lot of people are hooked on Looking Good (BBC2), too - enough anyway to make it one of BBC2's recent successes. I can't believe a lot of men are watching, because this fashion and make-up magazine is positive horse- tranquillizer for anyone with a Y-chromosome. I was groggy after five minutes but I would have thought it to be a bit dull even for double-Xers - since last night's episode consisted of some very familiar features: how to accessorise with jewellery, why fashion editors dress like Mediterranean widows, and how to attack cellulite by massaging it with large amounts of fresh cash. I would have thought, too, that the BBC - uncorrupted by the vast advertising clout of cosmetic and fashion companies - might have produced something a little more astringent. But then astringency isn't an appealing quality in a bubble bath - and I guess that's what this is supposed to be.