The Ten Best ELLEN Episodes of Season Four

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.


Season Four is Ellen’s big year — the year that its star and her network negotiated a plan for her to come out as gay through her character on a sitcom, creating an iconic moment in TV history that would influence the medium forever after. The season both benefits from and is hindered by this choice. But it starts, as everything with Ellen, from a desire to finally sort through the show’s chronic identity issues. Although the previous year had been the series’ best creatively, its numbers fell and it was clearly never going to climb out of mediocrity into reliable greatness. Ellen DeGeneres was acutely aware of Ellen’s limitations and pitched, partially as a way to give her show a fresh narrative direction (not ripped off from any other series, like Seinfeld or Friends), that her character — and she herself — should come out of the closet. Speculation had existed about her orientation for years — as early as 1995, articles were written about the series’ subtext with its lead (back when she was actually dating guys on the show) — so when news of this huge decision leaked at the top of the season, likely to build a mounting buzz, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise… at least, not from her. What was a surprise was that a network show, on ABC — owned by Disney — would let its lead be gay and have it addressed as a major part of the “situation.” Ellen played with this suspense, neither confirming nor denying the news, until a few weeks before the May Sweeps premiere of the one-hour reveal. This allowed the whole season to consciously emphasize its subtext and, more importantly, create an arc that would set it up — putting Ellen in therapy, with a string of different docs all trying to help her deal with her insecurities about doing new things, and then being truer to herself. This is interesting, for it’s almost as if the show was taking its own identity crisis and giving it to the central character — with the ultimate hope that, if she settles into who she is, so will Ellen the sitcom. And indeed, the last four half hours of the season do provide the show with a narrative engine, as Ellen comes out to herself, her friends, and her family. Never before has this series been so uniquely premised, as a result of this character arc, and with the novelty of this development goosing the humor, you’ll note that these are some of the best episodes of the entire run.

Season Five will have trouble sustaining this momentum — for reasons we’ll discuss — but as for the rest of Four, in the 21 weeks before a mediocre sitcom made history, Ellen continues to reiterate said mediocrity. The biggest difference between this year and its predecessor is that Four is more plot-led — in addition to Ellen’s introspective journey, there’s the storyline that sparks it: the separation of Ellen’s folks, who split and then reconcile before her coming out. These entries are decent — at their best when downplaying narrative tropes and focusing more on the personalities. There’s also Spence and Paige’s romance, which began at the end of Three and is very Friends-ian — an ensemble coupling that gives subplots an angle, without really having to be inspired by the characters themselves or how their definitions exist in relation to each other. Their perfunctory application here is an example of, overall, the ensemble not being used as well as it was last year, downplayed too much in deference to the star. Additionally, Four opens with Ellen selling the bookstore (but staying on as an employee) so she can buy a house, making space for a new boss — the conservative Ed (Bruce Campbell), with whom she clashes. Unfortunately, Ed proves little more than a narrative device whose entire purpose clicks at year’s end, when he’s the voice of disapproval for Ellen’s new “lifestyle.” Accordingly, he’s never allowed to be funny, and it’s a waste of a good actor. But just as the shadow of Ellen’s news-making change looms over him, it also looms over the season at large, locking the show into a holding period. That is, we’re ahead of the action; we’re eager for her to become more of herself — and presumably help the show — so any moment where she’s not progressing feels like wasted time. And the intentional coyness about Ellen’s forthcoming reveal exacerbates the series’ perennial vagueness, especially as the year also dials down its broad Lucy-esque physical comedy — a reference point to which Ellen once tied part of its identity — in favor of this more serious arc for her character, only cheapened by the many winks and gimmicks along the way. So, this is the season where Ellen steps into its legend, but it’s not actually great — in fact, it makes the case for a shakeup being necessary. If only the year’s final optimism could hold — when, for those last four episodes, Ellen enjoys a special character-based purpose.


01) Episode 67: “Looking Out For Number One” (Aired: 10/23/96)

Ellen sees her new therapist peeing in a public parking lot.

Written by David Flebotte | Directed by Gil Junger

After a handful of scripts that established all the new arcs for Season Four — Ellen returned to therapy in the previous entry, for instance — this one goes back to a more casual, episodic format. Harriet Sansom Harris guests as Ellen’s shrink-of-the-week, in this very funny Seinfeld-ian, idea-led story where Ellen catches her new doc peeing in a parking lot. Naturally, this discovery changes the way Ellen views her therapist and it complicates their relationship. It’s little more than a solid comic notion, but it makes for one of the most memorable half hours from the early part of this season, which is otherwise so consumed with these heavier narrative aims that it misses the mark in utilizing the characters well or delivering the kind of series-justifying laughs we expect from Ellen and don’t find until here. (Richard Roat also appears.)

02) Episode 70: “Not So Great Expectations” (Aired: 11/13/96)

Ellen’s newly single mother joins a video dating service.

Written by Ellen Idelson & Rob Lotterstein | Directed by Gil Junger

This is the funniest of all the installments crafted for Ellen’s parents’ separation arc, as it pairs the title character with her mom for ever-reliable comedy, and its script also knows to spotlight the star, affording her opportunities to actively clown — particularly in a centerpiece where she pretends to be interested in a video dating service so she can gather intel on the man her mother met through the program. DeGeneres seems to be having a ball getting all dolled up and mocking the fact that this is so unlike the character (which is based on her own persona) — and this itself is a wink to everything that we know about her and what’s coming up for the series. Also, the climax is set in a country western club, where the notable physicality favors the type of comedy for which Ellen and her series have become known. Guests include Lyle Waggoner, Debra Mooney, and Trisha Yearwood, while Devo performs the opening. (That’s right; Four is the year with the gimmick of various celebrities performing the theme song.)

03) Episode 75: “Alone Again… Naturally” (Aired: 01/08/97)

Ellen goes out by herself to a fancy restaurant.

Written by Mark Wilding | Directed by Alan Myerson

It’s not necessarily the most original idea — we’ve seen segments on other series where a leading character is forced to do something by him/herself and struggles with it (I’m thinking of a fun Phyllis episode, in particular) — but it’s a smart idea for Ellen to deploy for its lead in this specific season, which boasts a whole arc about self-discovery and Ellen’s attempts to become more comfortable with who she actually is. Forcing her to literally be by herself in public, with others watching, makes her directly confront her fear of negative judgment — a notion that might be a source of conflict later, given what we assume is about to occur. Additionally, it’s a natural way to emphasize the inherent fidgetiness of the Ellen Morgan character (and the DeGeneres persona), predicated on her often awkward, well-meaning desire to people-please. (Cristine Rose, Michael McDonald, Jann Arden, and Bob Saget appear.)

04) Episode 76: “Joe’s Kept Secret” (Aired: 01/15/97)

Ellen becomes a kept woman to Joe’s former sugar mama.

Written by Dava Savel | Directed by John Tracy

Florence Henderson turns in a memorable guest appearance in this installment, which I’d call one of the best for the underused Joe character — someone who’s been around since Season One and always claimed an elemental personality, but has seldom been recruited for major story, because, after all, spotlighting the star alone has become the series’ main goal (and any leftover room has been mostly given to Paige or Spence). But this story works for him and it’s revealing, as he essentially becomes a kept man for this rich older woman, and when he dumps her, said woman transfers her attention to Ellen, who is trying to butter up the lady for construction permits on the house she’s currently renovating. It’s a fairly unique idea given the gender arrangement, and it’s especially funny because of all the associations we make about Ellen and where she is headed. (Nancy Lenehan also guests, while Aaron Neville does the opening.)

05) Episode 77: “Makin’ Whoopie” (Aired: 01/22/97)

Ellen embarrasses Spence at his boss’ wine tasting party.

Written by David Flebotte | Directed by Iris Dugow

Probably Four’s most popular offering from the period before Ellen’s coming out, this is a throwback to an earlier era, for it’s pure broad, physical comedy in the grand tradition of Lucy, as the title character gets drunk at a swanky party and embarrasses her friend (Spence) — and, yes, there’s singing involved too. But if such shtick might seem unimaginative or not particularly impressive, its star does this kind of comedy well, and in the absence of a more fully formed identity, this type of humor has come to exist as one of the series’ calling cards, and actually something of its saving grace. Also, if, as we’ve established, the key to a satisfying episode of Ellen — on the show’s own terms — is simply that its star is spotlighted in a centerpiece where she can make us laugh, then this is an ideal half hour. (Guests include Dana Gould, Peter Michael Goetz, Mindy Sterling, Marie-Alise Recasner, Tim Bagley, and Meshell Ndegeocello.)

06) Episode 80: “Hello, Dalai” (Aired: 02/19/97)

Peter insults Ellen on a spiritual retreat.

Written by Ellen Idelson & Rob Lotterstein | Directed by Gil Junger

With Ellen’s coming out on the horizon, this season also uses more of her recurring friend Peter — a fun presence who’s certainly added to the show’s reputation for being gay friendly, even before this year’s narrative plans. He’s also “Ellen friendly,” in the sense that he’s a needed confidant and helper as Ellen enters her new identity, and this installment — though gaudy, set at a spiritual retreat where gags can be conveniently fostered — reveals his specific merit, like in a moment of total honesty with Ellen, where he confesses to her that he doesn’t believe she’s as happy as she pretends and that there are things she’s ignoring. It’s, quite obviously, a reference to everything we the audience already assume about her character — and it’s thus the most explicit example, in story, of Season Four preparing everyone for the big development that’s about to occur. (Also appearing here are Iqbal Theba, Brandon Maggart, Don Yesso, and Brian Setzer.)

07) Episode 84: “The Puppy Episode (I)” (Aired: 04/30/97)

Ellen finds herself attracted to another woman.

Teleplay by Mark Driscoll & Dava Savel & Tracy Newman & Jonathan Stark | Story by Ellen DeGeneres | Directed by Gil Junger

Without a doubt, this Emmy-winning two-parter — originally airing in a single hour-long block at the start of the May Sweeps period — is the most famous sample of the series, and one of the most famous sitcom samples of the decade, for this is the much publicized and highly watched entry where the leading character on a major network sitcom comes out as a lesbian, confirming the rumors both about the show and about the Emmy-nominated star herself. It’s such a huge development that it essentially can’t help being one big stunt — and indeed, everyone on Ellen has been open about the fact that it was pitched deliberately to improve the show, not only in the ratings, but also to give it a sense of self that it had otherwise lacked. And the series definitely leans into the bigness, casting Emmy-nominated Laura Dern as the woman who makes Ellen realize her sexual orientation and Oprah Winfrey as the therapist who finally gets Ellen to come out. Now, I wouldn’t ordinarily like such gimmickry, but in this case, it’s tied to the character’s personal journey, which we have been following all season (and theoretically throughout the entire series). And even here, it already suggests future possibility for story — story we’ve maybe never seen before (there have been gay sitcom characters, including gay leads, but never the star on such a visible, mainstream network show) — so it feels like it’s both rooted in Ellen Morgan’s character and is finally going to supply the series with a unique “situation.” Thus, it’s exciting, and the script itself is hysterical, with great gags — the best being Ellen’s recounting of a pretend tryst with her old flame (Steven Eckholdt) — that live up to the hype, making it a no-brainer as this year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode). A must-watch.

08) Episode 85: “The Puppy Episode (II)” (Aired: 04/30/97)

Ellen comes out as gay to her friends.

Teleplay by Mark Driscoll & Dava Savel & Tracy Newman & Jonathan Stark | Story by Ellen DeGeneres | Directed by Gil Junger

Part II aired originally in the same block as the above, and if I could give an MVE to them as a collective, I would. But I’m keeping the standard of awarding only one actual half hour, so I had to prioritize Part I, which benefits from the novelty of the development and includes Ellen’s confession. Part II, then, has more serious stuff with which to contend, like removing Laura Dern from the equation (making it so Ellen has embraced the idea that she’s gay beyond just having feelings for one woman), and then forcing her to tell her new truth to all her friends — a scene that sets up a mini-arc for Paige, in particular. All of this is valuable — an exploration of the show’s new “situation” as a result of a character’s well-built evolution. And there are still big laughs here, like with Audrey’s embracement of Ellen’s lesbianism, and in the rapport between Ellen and Oprah. Also, there are a lot of gimmicky celebrity cameos, including k.d. lang, Demi Moore, Billy Bob Thornton, Gina Gershon, Dwight Yoakam, and Melissa Etheridge.

09) Episode 86: “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” (Aired: 05/07/97)

Ellen’s parents have trouble accepting the news that she’s gay.

Written by Jan Nash | Directed by Gil Junger

The first offering after the big event, this strong excursion actually manages to keep up the momentum, delivering one of the most dramatic and conflict-yielding scenarios that we could have expected in the immediate aftermath of Ellen’s discovery: she now must come out to her parents (who, incidentally, reconciled right before Sweeps). The scene is played with humanity — that is, everyone behaves in accordance with literal realism — but there is no shortage of laughs. Okay, the ensuing support group climax probably resolves things too quickly between Ellen and her folks, but it’s another amusing set piece that allows for emotional catharses, making this new development in the “situation” seem genuinely well-explored. A favorite. (James Hong, Chaz Bono, Dayton Callie, Laraine Newman, and Joan Jett also appear.)

10) Episode 87: “Moving On” (Aired: 05/14/97)

Ellen’s boss doesn’t want her around his kids anymore.

Written by Alex Herschlag & David Flebotte | Directed by Gil Junger

Season Four ends with a heavier episode than the three above, and that’s because it’s working to a narrative point: getting Ellen out of the bookstore (a choice that I’ll have more to say about next week). The natural way to do this is to have a conflict about Ellen’s orientation using her conservative boss, with whom she’s always clashed. As discussed, Ed seems to only exist for this moment — to provide the kind of harsh rebuke of Ellen’s “lifestyle” that otherwise isn’t represented by a regular/recurring element of the series. In this regard, it’s convenient — but it’s not funny, and it renders Ed more a device than a character. However, this finale also takes the opportunity to move Paige, who was uncomfortable with Ellen’s coming out, into a place of acceptance, finally getting off her chest that she felt deceived. It’s a truthful exchange that centralizes their friendship — the core relationship of the series, and a bond that the show never explores well enough. (Nancy Lenehan guests again, and the Bee Gees do the opening.)


Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Ellen’s Deaf Comedy Jam,” where Audrey falls for a deaf actor and Ellen bungles things with her poor interpretative skills (a funny idea that isn’t as rooted in her character’s continuity), “The Pregnancy Test,” Friends-ian entry where we’re expected to believe that one of the three regular ladies is pregnant (even though it’s “schmuck bait”), and “Reversal Of Misfortune,” which has several funny moments as Ellen’s parents “surprisingly” reconcile. I’ll also take this space to cite “The Bubble Gum Incident,” which is predicated on Ellen and Paige’s history, “Harold And Ellen,” which leans into Ellen’s relationship with her now-single father, “Kiss My Bum,” where Ellen is awkward when she invites a homeless man to Thanksgiving (it’s got laughs but it doesn’t feel congruous with her depiction), and “Secrets & Ellen,” where Eileen Heckart guests and both Ellen and her parents are forced to pretend that they are in happy, traditional couplings.


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

“The Puppy Episode (I)”



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

8 thoughts on “The Ten Best ELLEN Episodes of Season Four

  1. I never watched this show regularly but I was fascinated by all the buzz and was certain to tune in to the big reveal. I thought it was funny but I never thought the show kept up that quality. It was all a gimmick.

    I say this as someone who enjoys Ellen generally and some of the other people on the show. Every time I watched outside of “The Puppy Episode”, I was disappointed.

    But I have been loving your coverage and I’m looking forward to next week.

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      There are some strong episodes at the end of Season Four and the beginning of Season Five, but mostly I agree, the show just couldn’t keep up the hype — and not surprisingly, as it was always a basically mediocre effort…

  2. Several weeks ago you shared a list of your favorite sitcom episodes from 1997. But I presume that was before you examined “Ellen” for these articles. Has your opinion changed since then? Would you include anything from this series, like “The Puppy Episode (I),” in a new list?

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Maybe — and my MVE from Season Five I quite like as well. If so, I would probably sub out my selection from DREW CAREY.

  3. Yeah this season wasn’t the best. It was all leading up to The Puppy Episode. Which I have to admit is a classic. I love the Oprah scenes.

    • Hi, Travis! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, she’s great — and I’m glad you enjoyed my look at FRASIER!

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