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Ally's self-involvement can make the viewer wince because of the writing ("Love and law are the same: romantic in concept, but in practice both can give you a yeast infection") and because she hasn't earned our sympathy--her predicaments often seem so false. It's not a matter of being true to life; it's a matter of being true to the rules of the world the show creates. Ally's competence at work changes capriciously, depending on the needs of the story and the jokes. In its story lines as well as in fantasy sequences depicting what Ally is thinking, the show edges toward absurdism. That's fine, but when a whole episode is devoted to the consequences of Ally's argument with a woman over a container of Pringles, it shouldn't climax with a deadly earnest, cliche-ridden feminist speech delivered by Dyan Cannon playing a judge. (In fact, probably no show should ever climax with a deadly earnest, cliche-ridden feminist speech delivered by Dyan Cannon playing a judge.)
And yet, because Flockhart really is a fine actress and the writing can rise to a higher level, the show has its winning moments. When Ally counsels an obese man about romance, the scenes are touching and amusing too. As such scenes accumulate, a viewer senses that, as with thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, two shows that could also be precious and manipulative and that had similar attitudes and characters, there may be stages to go through: disgust, annoyance, grudging tolerance, enjoyment accompanied by self-loathing, actual enjoyment. Right now, the pain-pleasure ratio of watching Ally McBeal is tilted in the wrong direction, but it's shifting.