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One of the most difficult roles for a young actress is that of Laura in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. The shy, crippled girl at the center of the play, Laura is as fragile as the glass figurines of animals she collects. To portray her effectively, an actress must convey her vulnerability without making her seem pitiable and tiresome. On Broadway three years ago, Calista Flockhart, star of the new Fox hit Ally McBeal, gave a beautifully poised and tender performance as Laura, winning your heart and breaking it too. Now, as Ally McBeal, Flockhart faces a similar challenge: how to play a vulnerable young woman in such a way that when she gets all trembly, the viewer doesn't want to throw glass figurines at the TV.

Everyone is talking about Ally McBeal. Produced by David E. Kelley, who created Picket Fences and Chicago Hope, the show portrays a single woman struggling with work and love, and it has become another subject of arch, joshing disputes between the sexes, like football and Michael Bolton. To many women, Ally is quirky, contradictory and wonderful; to many men, she is a simpering drag. Our mission here is to settle this question once and for all. The answer? Simpering drag, but not hopeless.

As her name so perfectly suggests, Ally is a slightly off-kilter, upper-middle-class Anglo-Saxon--she's imperfection idealized. She went to Harvard Law School, and professionally she appears to be a great success. But in fact she's an emotional muddle, confused about her career and her love life. As luck would have it, her childhood sweetheart, whom she broke up with at Harvard, is a partner in her firm and is married to a bright, attractive woman. Ally still loves him, and there are intimations that the feeling may be returned, but otherwise she is alone. Smart yet also emotional, Ally represents the modern female trying to remain true to herself in a harsh male world.

Unfortunately, she represents that female so explicitly that the show seems hollow and calculated even by TV standards. Peter Roth, head of Fox Entertainment, says he asked Kelley to create a series with a strong female lead to fill the time slot after Melrose Place, which is popular among young women. In other words, the demographics came first, and the provenance shows. You feel as if Kelley gathered a list of themes from focus groups and then set about addressing them methodically and baldly. In one of the many declarations the show makes about its heroine--in case anyone missed the point--Ally says, "I am a strong workingwoman whose life feels empty without a man." Given the show's success, though, pushing those buttons must work.

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