Unloved Ally McBeal ditched by US network

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Ally McBeal, the television drama series famous for suggesting, at least half-seriously, that the best way for women to get ahead in the legal profession is to starve themselves and act ditsy around the office, is being pulled off the air after five seasons because of a slump in ratings.

"It's sad to say goodbye to something you love, even when perhaps it is time," the series' highly prolific creator, David E Kelley, said in a statement.

The show, shown on Fox in America and on Channel 4 in Britain, came close to being pulled once before, in 2000, and was resuscitated thanks only to the inspired casting of Robert Downey Jnr, a personal friend of Mr Kelley, as a tantalising new love interest for Ally, played by Calista Flockhart.

But Downey, who got the job straight from a year-long stretch in prison on drugs charges, had to be fired after only a few months because of repeated run-ins with the law that made him uninsurable. The show never recovered, and viewers were disappearing faster than Ms Flockhart's perilously thin waistline.

A two-hour special episode broadcast in the US earlier this week garnered the lowest ever audience rating in its category.

Long before Downey's well-publicised addiction struggles, the show hit the headlines over the psychological and medical problems assailing its cast. Flockhart's extraordinary thinness became regular tabloid fodder, particularly after she fainted on set and was taken to hospital 16 months ago.

Courtney Thorne-Smith, who played Georgia in the show's first three seasons, quit to pursue other interests and later confided in a newspaper interview: "The amount of time I spent thinking about food and being upset about my body was insane."

Ally is the second hit Fox series to reach the end of its run. The X-Files, one of the network's runaway smashes of recent years, has also been withdrawn after a long, slow decline.

The loss of Ally McBeal represents no more than a marginally eased workload for Mr Kelley, who always seems to have at least three big series on the go. His previous hits include Chicago Hope, LA Law, The Practice and, more recently, Boston Public. Among his new projects is a show for Fox to be called Girls Club. From the title, it seems the job prospects of excessively svelte glamour babes are still safe in his hands.