When Fox announced the death of the sitcom "Ally McBeal," I thought of Alice Longworth Roosevelt. When they told her that President Coolidge was dead she replied: "How can they tell?"
Ally, the funny, quirky, emblematic post-modern feminist of the '90s, was actually finished off a long time ago, done in for trying too hard to push the envelope of contemporary cliches about women. In early episodes, her fantasy life of wanting a child was fresh, poignant and humorous - emotions not easy to put together. She was a living contradiction, demonstrating that a woman can laugh and cry at the paradoxes of life experiences when she seeks love and work at the same time and in the same place.
This season, when her daughter, age 10, materializes from an egg Ally donated when she was a college girl, the episode is merely sick with artificiality - performance in a petri dish, in vitro verity. The sitcom self-destructs.
The coed bathrooms in Ally's law firm once made for marvelous farce, laughs for everyone who remembered that the strongest emotional argument against the Equal Rights Amendment was that the amendment would make single sex bathrooms unconstitutional. The gloss of satire was always near the surface in the best Ally episodes, exposing the silliness - and sadness - generated when women throw away the last illusions of feminine mystery.
Calista Flockhart, who played Ally, was so skinny that she brought back the image of womanhood reaching toward invisibility, a Giacometti-like sculpture whose sexuality was lost in a career woman's neurotic obsessions. It's not without irony that the most powerful romantic scenes of the series were those when Robert Downey Jr. became her foil, drawing out Ally's feminine richness with male repartee and sexiness. If she didn't look heavier, her role was weightier.
But you might ask, who cares? A sitcom is a sitcom is a sitcom. Ally McBeal merely goes the way of "Seinfeld," documenting a moment that once felt pregnant with insight about our times, our politics and our culture, but has fallen victim to changing tastes.
But the end of a popular television program also tells us something about our alternating sense of values. Ally McBeal was the comic prelude to the serious stuff. Sylvia Ann Hewlett has gathered some data about the serious stuff in her new book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," which addresses the half-life of feminism for women who want families and can't have them.
Ally made the cover of Time magazine in 1998 over the caption: "Is Feminism Dead?" The theme of the cover story was that feminism had turned into sexual narcissism, an obsessive search for Mr. Right in all the wrong places. The political was nothing when it wasn't personal.
In 2002, Time updated the theme with another cover, this one with an infant sitting atop the office in-box overflowing with policy papers and unanswered mail, illustrating the harsh facts of fertility. The personal, you might say, needs Pampers.
Something else is at work here, too and that's a different perception of what's important. These are not times with patience for frivolousness and narcissism. The war against terrorism, like other wars, focuses on what's worth fighting over, what to protect and preserve. Sept. 11 was burned into memory with thoughts of thousands of men, women and children who were lost in the flash of an instant. Terrorism is an enemy that constantly stalks consciousness and alters goals.
That doesn't mean we can't laugh and cry at the contradictions, some delicious and some not, in the sexual relationships of women and men. HBO's "Sex in the City" remains a hit, but its aim is bawdier, more brazen and more hedonistic than "Ally McBeal" ever was.
When I observed in a recent column that some of the most successful women in the Western world were whining over not having it all, I was inundated with letters from men: They don't have it all, either, but they've always known that. What feminism wrought, these letter-writers insist, is the inability for women to make the necessary compromises. Once, maybe, it was the other way around, but now women want men to make all the compromises.
When Time magazine concluded that "Ally McBeal" signaled the death of feminism, lots of old guard feminists lamented the loss of public purpose among successful career women symbolized by Ally: "Maybe if she lost her job and wound up a single mom, we could begin a movement again." Well, now she has. But I'm not holding my breath. Feminism, like a popular sitcom, is subject to changing realities and tastes.