The Ten Best ELLEN Episodes of Season Three

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage of Ellen (1994-1998, ABC), which has been released on DVD and is currently available on Amazon Prime.


Although Ellen took huge strides when defining itself in its second season, Three continues to tweak, knowing full well that the series is not yet reliably great. Its major tweak is swapping out Arye Gross’ Adam for Jeremy Piven’s Spence (with a brief overlap) — someone who also has an emotional past with Ellen, but this time as her cousin and therefore a guy pal sans any romantic or sexual possibilities (which is intentional because Ellen is no longer dating). Piven, an alum of Larry Sanders, is a more innately comic force, with an attitude that provides a foundation for a character, and since he’s afforded a history and an occupation that, like Paige’s, can help generate ideas, his inclusion pushes Ellen’s ensemble into its finest form. All five regulars (Ellen, Paige, Spence, Audrey, and Joe) have definable traits that can yield laughs and perhaps inspire story. Now, the show may not do a great job of using them frequently to inspire story like this low-concept premise demands, but they’re there for amiable support. Speaking of story, scripts continue to highlight Ellen in big comic centerpieces, many of which feel reminiscent of The Lucy Show (the lesser Lucy) and sometimes lack great motivation, but with an MTM-like work/home structure around this “hangout” ensemble — which is starting to take on more elements of Friends than the initially modeled Seinfeld (see: an arc where Paige gets engaged but then hooks up with Spence) — it’s clear this series is trying to provide a wider range of narrative opportunity. And, yes, Three does represent the show’s peak — with more consistency, and the most enjoyable episodes — thanks to a funny and still-spotlighted star within a better cast, and comic ideas conceived by the best writing staff (led for this year only by DeAnn Heline & Eileen Heisler). It’s the show’s best season. Of course, despite success by Ellen’s own standards, the macro concerns remain, with the series never living up to the points of reference cited above, and instead offering familiar episodic notions for potential-filled leads too often undercut by an overall “situation” derivative of better sitcoms. DeGeneres herself was aware that her show lacked a unique engine; that’s why next season she would propose a gigantic shakeup intended to give it one. This would make the series legendary, though not necessarily better…


01) Episode 38: “The Shower Scene” (Aired: 09/27/95)

Ellen accidentally tapes over Paige’s sister’s birthing tape with an episode of thirtysomething. 

Written by Dava Savel | Directed by Robby Benson

With the comic idea of Ellen accidentally taping over an important life event for Paige’s sister with a rerun of thirtysomethingthis very ’90s half hour engages a fairly unoriginal story that is nevertheless enriched by details related to Ellen. For starters, it works for her characterization, for though the conflict is not the result of any explicit personality flaw, it’s the kind of carless mistake that accentuates the character’s bumbling nature, and it’s fun watching her squirm when she — a people-pleaser — realizes that she’s erred. Yes, the centerpiece where she and Spence consider replicating the tape by sneaking into the hospital is a bit ridiculous — there’s a self-conscious Lucy reference meant to telegraph an awareness of how goofy it is — but that also speaks to the show’s identity in this era. What’s more, I enjoy that the emotional stakes of this entry reside with Paige, and specifically, Paige’s relationship with her sister (Connie Britton) — who’ll come back in the season finale — for it may be a minor hook, but it represents this series’ increased willingness to create and then utilize aspects of its supporting players to help concoct and then situate story… like a more fully developed sitcom would do.

02) Episode 39: “The Bridges Of L.A. County” (Aired: 10/04/95)

Ellen feels caught in the middle when Spence sleeps with a woman in her book group.

Written by Tracy Newman & Jonathan Stark | Directed by Robby Benson

Spence’s character gets his first great showcase in this episode that indicates how Season Three is opening up for greater potential, using a recurring element that’s more prominent this year — Ellen’s book club, which is comprised of a handful of eccentrics, very much in the vein of Bob Newhart’s therapy group. This story has Ellen stuck in the middle of Spence’s relationship — or one-night stand, rather — with the latest hair-brained addition to the club (Christine Taylor), and it takes advantage of Ellen’s fidgety, people-pleasing, and well-intentioned persona, while also inoculating us to the contrast of the easily combustible, jerky Spence. However, what I most appreciate is the scene between the three women regulars — Ellen, Paige, and Audrey — who have a “girls’ night” that depicts them as a well-oiled machine (à la Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe), each with a unique personality and an obvious source of laughs. It’s proof that this is the year Ellen stumbles into its best configuration of its ensemble and therefore the best form of its “situation.” (Other guests include Brian George and Anthony Clark.)

03) Episode 42: “She Ain’t Friendly, She’s My Mother” (Aired: 11/08/95)

Ellen’s mother tries to strike up a friendship with her.

Written by David Flebotte | Directed by Robby Benson

Ellen’s relationship with her folks (Alice Hirson and Steven Gilborn) is one of the only through-lines that runs in all five seasons of this ever-changing show, and it becomes especially important next year, when her parents’ marriage is a whole narrative arc of its own, ahead of her decision to come out as gay to them. So, earlier offerings that deal with this familial dynamic are interesting, as they all tend to involve Ellen’s desire to be more open and honest — to have a more authentic bond. In this case, that idea is introduced by her mother Lois, who wants to be friends with Ellen… a suggestion that is clearly not meant to last, culminating in a fun scene where Ellen joins her mom’s bridge group and shocks them all when she participates in their discussion of sex — one of the last times that her character un-ironically alludes to being with men… At any rate, it’s a good show centered on an established relationship and it’s rooted in a trackable part of Ellen’s “situation.” (Doris Belack and Beverly Garland also appear.)

04) Episode 43: “Salad Days” (Aired: 11/15/95)

Ellen hosts a dinner party in honor of guest Martha Stewart.

Written by Dava Savel | Directed by Robby Benson

Martha Stewart guest stars as herself in this popular outing that I find to be one of the sillier selections on this list, operating with less literal realism than the year’s baseline, largely due to a strained setup (why would Martha Stewart ever go to Ellen’s apartment for dinner?), and then gags that are particularly broad. But the reason I ultimately appreciate “Salad Days” is for its rhetorical value — it reinforces the ways in which Ellen is consciously linking its identity to tenets of other, better sitcoms in the hopes of creating its own viable brand. Its story feels like something from Mary Tyler Moore, where Mary Richards was known for her disastrous dinner parties, while the comic mania, including a gag where Ellen throws hot rolls at her dinner guests, is very Lucy. As always, Ellen never manages to be as good as those top-tier efforts, but such associations are affable and they reflect the show’s attempts to define itself. (Note that this entry features Patrick Bristow’s Peter and introduces his partner Barrett, played by Jack Plotnick.)

05) Episode 44: “The Movie Show” (Aired: 11/22/95)

Paige uses Ellen’s bookstore as the location for a movie.

Written by Tracy Newman & Jonathan Stark | Directed by Robby Benson

Another episode built around a big-name guest, this installment boasts Carrie Fisher as herself, a movie star who’s come to shoot a film in the store. But there’s little of Mary Tyler Moore here (and the more realistic low-concept world in which that show was set), for it’s all Lucy, with the comic centerpiece being the evergreen “the daffy extra messes up production of a movie.” It’s uninspired, especially for a character without a specifically show-biz related purpose. Yet I enjoy this offering because not only is the Lucy comparison an apt exhibit in our look at the series’ ongoing identity crisis, but also because the script knows to give this plot more dramatic weight via the relationship between Ellen and Paige, the latter of whom helps invite the whole story through her occupation in the industry. In this regard, Ellen is attempting to employ elements of its “situation” — the core friendship and a significant part of Paige’s characterization — and that’s why I’m genuinely able to call it a worthwhile reflection of the season.

06) Episode 48: “Horshack’s Law” (Aired: 01/03/96)

Ellen and her friends take a limo to a party for John Travolta.

Written by Tom Leopold | Directed by Robby Benson

This excursion showcases Ellen’s enhanced ensemble in Three, gathering all five regulars — Ellen, Paige, Spence, Audrey, and Joe — in a limo on their way to a star-studded party in honor of John Travolta. The plot is set up by Paige, whose Hollywood immersion is a fruitful launching pad for story, used here to get the main cast together for an extended period, which is often conducive to comic success (as we’ve seen on other “hangout” shows — notably, Friends). Naturally, hijinks ensue and the group never makes it to the party, ending up at a diner where they meet one of Travolta’s Welcome Back, Kotter castmates, Ron Palillo, with whom Audrey is entranced in an amusing display of her characterization. His inclusion is a stunt just like with Martha Stewart and Carrie Fisher, but such gimmickry is starting to feel part of Ellen’s DNA, and this time, it’s actually more about the Audrey character anyway. One of my favorites (and it’s credited to Tom Leopold, a former Seinfeld and Cheers scribe who’s on staff for this year only).

07) Episode 49: “Morgan, P.I.” (Aired: 01/10/96)

Ellen tries to help catch the man who robbed her store.

Written by Dava Savel | Directed by Robby Benson

There won’t be any points awarded to the show for originality with this story — or for the show’s originality with most story, frankly — but this well-liked offering affords Ellen the chance to clown in a memorable centerpiece where she helps catch the guy who robbed her store. As usual, it’s very Lucy-esque, with a hidden microphone on her body that keeps moving around until it lands on her butt — a notion that enables some fun physical comedy from the star herself, who’s well-spotlighted as a result, earning big laughs that are hard to exclude from this list. Meanwhile, this entry also introduces Matt (Dan Gauthier), the man who’ll soon become Paige’s fiancé — she’s hilarious here, but it’s not exactly a believable arc (Paige seems too cynical and career-driven for a whirlwind romance like this), but it’s Friends-ian, and thus appropriate for the show given what we know about it and its mostly self-conscious narrative inspirations.

08) Episode 51: “Witness” (Aired: 02/07/96)

Ellen agrees to participate in Spence’s mock trial exam.

Written by Alex Herschlag | Directed by Robby Benson

My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode, “Witness” earns that distinction simply because it’s the funniest, and with a show like Ellen, that has to be the seminal criteria, for in the absence of a steady, excellent “situation” and/or the routinely laudable utilization of its characters within weekly story, all that’s left is the overarching objective of ALL situation comedy: to make us laugh. And to its credit, this installment, I repeat, is the funniest, for it does exactly what Ellen learned last season is the surest way to get big hahas and produce a successful half hour: focus on the star by setting up scenarios (however connected to the “situation”) where she’s able to do big, broad comedy, often physical. So, this script puts its lead in a mock trial where she’s playing an outrageous character — Lola BigCups, a stripper — which is particularly funny due to the contrast between the stereotypical ideal of a stripper and the fidgety, sexless Ellen Morgan (especially here in Season Three). Now, I’m personally not thrilled about the flimsy maneuvers used to set up what is essentially an extended sketch — even though this whole mock trial is justified as being for Spence’s school, it feels very convenient and not a regular part of who he is or how story is derived — but it’s hard to deny the sheer comic force of the Emmy-nominated Ellen DeGeneres, who commands the screen and earns several of the series’ biggest yuks. Even in the best season of this mediocre series, there’s nothing else that is executed smartly enough to be more important than showcasing its star so comedically. (Concetta Tomei, Anthony Clark, and Scott Mosenson guest.)

09) Episode 53: “Lobster Diary” (Aired: 02/21/96)

Ellen rescues a lobster from a tank at a restaurant.

Written by Tracy Newman & Jonathan Stark | Directed by Robby Benson

Ellen’s associations with The Mary Tyler Moore Show rise to their most explicit when Mary Tyler Moore appears as herself, congratulating Ellen for her animal rights activism: saving a lobster from getting killed and eaten. It’s a story that is propped up by some continuity (Ellen was arrested for protesting against the killing of ferrets last year) and is also rooted in her general persona as a wannabe do-gooder, who nevertheless bungles, like when the lobster, after being rescued, dies before she can even set it free. That’s an amusing idea in itself, though I must admit I’m most enthused by Moore’s inclusion — not the gimmickry of it, but because it indicates Ellen’s deliberate connection with MTM’s classic. And more interestingly, this script emphasizes the similar personality traits of Ellen Morgan and Mary Richards — both optimists who want to please others and are uncomfortable with tension. Of course, Ellen is more of a daffy mess than Mary, but there are enough similarities for them to mirror each other in a comic exchange, and this is an affiliation that actually works in Ellen’s favor, highlighting the fact that she truly has a viable, workable sitcom characterization. (Paul Dooley also guests.)

10) Episode 57: “Two Mammograms And A Wedding” (Aired: 04/03/96)

Ellen attempts to befriend a woman she meets while waiting for a mammogram.

Written by Dava Savel | Directed by Robby Benson

Jeremy Piven’s Larry Sanders chum Janeane Garofalo guest stars in this unusual offering where Ellen, who is feeling ignored by a wedding-planning Paige and is overly sensitive when preparing for a mammogram (in a scene that’s fun because it’s reliant on physicality), tries to make friends with the stranger she met in the waiting room. But while Ellen and this lady have a great connection at the doctor’s, it doesn’t seem to translate so well in their daily lives — a disappointment exacerbated by our lead’s awkwardness. This idea is predicated on Ellen’s puppy dog-esque enthusiasm and desire for people to like her, even though she can be clumsy and generally loud, especially in comparison to the low-key Garofalo. Accordingly, it’s a great display of Ellen’s characterization, inside a unique story that’s relatable, and also linked to the ongoing arc about Paige’s forthcoming nuptials. (Thea Vidale and Mina Kolb also appear.)


Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Do You Fear What I Fear?,” which is a fun ensemble Christmas show that has a comic centerpiece in a cemetery, “Ellen’s Choice,” which spotlights Ellen’s book club again in a story that reminds of a classic Bob Newhart“Ellen: With Child,” where Ellen, much like Mary Richards once did, has to explain to a friend’s daughter about sex, “A Penney Saved…,” where we learn more about Audrey and Carol Kane guests as her mom, and both parts of “When The Vow Breaks,” the manic finale that’s most important for introducing the Friends-ian relationship between Spence and Paige. I’ll also take this space to cite installments that I didn’t consider but still want to recognize: the season premiere, “Shake, Rattle, And Rubble,” which is a lot of setup but features Ellen’s characterization well, “Hello, I Must Be Going,” where Arye Gross’ Adam departs and the show bids farewell to the possibility that Ellen Morgan might ever end up with a man, “Oh, Sweet Rapture,” where Audrey shines and Kathy Griffin guests, and “Go Girlz,” where Paige has her bachelorette party. Oh, and I just have to note the memorable subtext from the scene in “Two Ring Circus” where Ellen ends up proposing to Paige on behalf of her boyfriend.


*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Ellen goes to…




Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!

6 thoughts on “The Ten Best ELLEN Episodes of Season Three

  1. This is my favorite season too because I think it has the highest volume of funniest episodes. I also prefer Jeremy Piven to Arye Gross and think he has better chemistry with the others cast.

    I really love the Mary Tyler Moore episode too. I never really noticed the similarities between the characters until I watched it later.

    Also I wish we saw more of Carol Kane as Audrey’s mother. She didn’t get much to do in her one appearance.

    • Hi, Bb Major! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      ELLEN didn’t do a very good job of utilizing its ensemble in general — it would have been smart for the show to better develop Audrey, and of course feature more of her family.

  2. The Martha Stewart episode never made sense to me but it does seem like an homage to “Mary Tyler Moore” and I like it enough.

    Ellen is hilarious though. I still remember the mock trial episode and the stuff she did up on the stand. Hilarious.

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