Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the best of Ellen (1994-1998, ABC), which has been released on DVD and is currently available on Amazon Prime. Note that this first season originally aired under the title These Friends Of Mine.
Ellen stars ELLEN DeGENERES as Ellen, ARYE GROSS as Adam, HOLLY FULGER as Holly, and MAGGIE WHEELER as Anita. With DAVID ANTHONY HIGGINS as Joe.
Like Cybill, Ellen is mediocre relative to all the greats we’ve covered on Sitcom Tuesdays. It’s not a top-tier contender up there with Seinfeld, Frasier, or Friends, and it’s not as joyously fun as a, say, Martin or 3rd Rock From The Sun. But it is one of the most memorable sitcoms of the 1990s, boasting an iconic moment in American popular culture — when a famous standup comic came out as gay through her character on a very visible television series. This makes it a genuinely reflective exhibit of its era. Accordingly, when it was the most requested ’90s sitcom in my recent reader survey, I decided to find room for it here — I felt our look at the decade would benefit merely by addressing this oft-cited ambassador. Now, as far as the series’ mediocrity is concerned — and setting aside the recent PR controversy surrounding Ellen DeGeneres that might color how we perceive her personally — I think Ellen is nevertheless a fairly affable sitcom, much more so than Cybill. That is, it has laughs — she’s funny, the cast (once it settles) is pretty good, and there are episodes that I enjoy, both in the context of the show itself and this blog’s entire study. And while it is indeed a sitcom like Cybill with something of a sensitive star, the central issue of that series is mostly avoided. Specifically, Ellen DeGeneres’ proxy, Ellen Morgan, is allowed to have perceptible character flaws, create narrative consequences, and actively be wrong in major plot points. By eschewing the personal vanity that made impossible a viable sitcom character on Cybill, Ellen is much more conducive to the kind of storytelling that the genre requires. The only thing DeGeneres and Cybill Shepherd look to have in common is a bit of competitive vanity, with a desire to horde hahas and dominate their shows’ comedic prospects — particularly by way of physical set pieces. In other words, as stars, they seem to want to be the funniest, and no one else has permission to shine as bright. This is not as seminal a concern on Ellen — DeGeneres is much more generous than Shepherd, of course — and, frankly, it’s not unique either, for star vehicles of the 1950s and 1960s similarly prioritized their leading players above all the support. But it’s still a fairly unusual dynamic for the 1990s, where an ensemble-based sensibility, especially in “hangout” sitcoms like these, tends to equalize comedy via character, while also granting scripts more narrative avenues for sitcommery.
Yet while that may be a limitation, it’s not the main reason why I would call Ellen mediocre. The problem, again, actually does reside in the central character, as the guiding arc for Ellen Morgan, accentuated by her coming out in April 1997 (Season Four), becomes crystallized as a struggle to uncover who she really is and how she can live her life authentically. Everything before and after this development starts to make sense when framed around this Big Event, and naturally, with a lead grappling over issues of identity, so does her show, which also seems to be in a perpetual identity crisis, never knowing for sure what it is or what exactly its “situation” should be in story. In fact, this nebulousness of purpose, perspective, and self renders it hard to feel like there is a clear “situation” being engaged in plot. On the surface, yeah, Ellen — initially These Friends Of Mine, but retitled for its second season — is another “hangout” multi-cam, just like a Seinfeld or a Friends, only this time centered around a female lead with both a personal and professional life (à la Frasier, or its MTM ancestors). This low-concept construction, without any idea-led or premised hook, would then simply appear to demand the low-concept exploration of its leads. But, unfortunately, true to this notion of an identity crisis, it takes a while for the show to figure out the right configuration of its ensemble. This first season sets things off on the wrong foot, beginning with a cast of DeGeneres, Arye Gross, Maggie Wheeler, and Holly Fulger — linked together as a Los Angeles friend group, a sort of distaff Seinfeld with Ellen as Jerry (only she’s not playing a standup — it’s not quite as autobiographical), and Gross’ Adam a bit like her Elaine, someone with whom there might exist the slightest possibility of romance. The network, ABC, certainly cultivated These Friends Of Mine in the image of Seinfeld and promoted it as such. But the strength of that hit NBC series was its funny ideas — in support of its premise about how Jerry Seinfeld, a standup comic, finds his trivial, observation-derived material (and the smart storytelling that then developed to emphasize and mingle such minutia). Ellen, no matter what it’s called, is never as clever, especially with a Seinfeld comparison foisted upon it right from the start, as a result of this encouraged design.
More troubling about this first season, though, is the fact that all three supporting members of its ensemble are vague and relatively undefined. Only Ellen has a basic characterization, rooted in her standup persona — an awkward, unassuming, androgynous type who can be a bit sarcastic, but always with a veneer of optimism and bumbling well-intention. It’s a less polished Mary Richards, actually — only deliberately sexless and with a very strong dose of Lucy Carmichael-esque daffiness. It’s enough to inspire a variety of different stories and earn big comedic set pieces. But, again, no one else around her in this “hangout” format feels as fully formed, and without a larger premise to guide them in plot, These Friends Of Mine feels aimless. To her credit, DeGeneres recognized that it wasn’t working. She was unhappy with the structural comparisons to Seinfeld, and the current configuration of the cast — she apparently wanted her sitcom to be more in the vein of Mary Tyler Moore and that company’s classics, with the workplace setting elevated in prominence as a breeding ground for story. (I think the goal was also to take some focus off the character’s personal and dating life — a trend that would accelerate after Season Two.) So, changes were made. Maggie Wheeler’s Anita was dropped after only seven episodes, new writers came in to help replace two of the three creators, and the show added David Anthony Higgins as Joe, a sourpuss Canadian barista at the coffee shop inside of Ellen’s bookstore, which was now a regular set. However, even with these tweaks, there really weren’t major differences — These Friends Of Mine was still a “hangout” sitcom dependent on funny ideas that simply couldn’t conceive them (in the absence of funny characters). And it had no sense of identity to encourage a precise type of story that could then be pinpointed as ideal for the series and help define its “situation.” More changes were thus in order, and Seasons Two and Three — now called Ellen — would continue to evolve the core ensemble, while also settling on the notion that the best episodes would merely be those that best feature its funny lead doing funny things — like in a vintage star vehicle. Of course, that wouldn’t be enough to make the show totally great or fully satisfy DeGeneres, who knew her sitcom lacked direction.
We’ll talk a lot more about the show’s annual shifts as they occur (stay tuned), for one of the reasons that Ellen is fun to discuss is that every season is different, in accordance with its inability to ever settle into a groove that works well. Even the much-critiqued final year, easily the most interesting season of the whole run, doesn’t function like a completely self-actualized sitcom. Specifically, it doesn’t solve the series’ crisis of identity — trading mediocre trappings for worse ones, while further limiting the ways in which the series can derive story and have it feel affiliated to a “situation.” And because the show never steps into greatness on a consistent basis, Ellen has a diminished reputation; the best season ends up being the one that is the least strained. As we’ll see, that’s Three, which boasts the finest formation of the ensemble, with scripts by the funniest staff of writers, who craft stories that not only use the regular cast well, but more than anything, centralize Ellen to showcase her comedy and grant her sitcom something of a purpose — displaying her strong comedic chops as someone who is always likable (at this point in her career, anyway), even when clouded by questions pertaining to identity… But let’s not get too far ahead. First, Season One — 13 episodes were shot and began airing in March 1994. Eight were broadcast by ABC that spring, and three more debuted in August. This left two whole entries unseen, until they were burned off by the network — in special timeslots — in May 1996, during the series’ third season. Now, when drafting this list of favorites, I have decided to count those two episodes — the ones that aired in 1996 — as part of Season One, for they were produced with this collection and obviously feature this original format. (They’re also on the first year’s DVDs.) It would not make sense to compare them to the show as it existed in Three. That said, because “airing order” is the most official recognition of chronology — and the standard that this blog uses — I will be referring to them using the episode numbers that indicate their actual broadcast premieres. So, for instance, the segments in contention for this list are 01 through 11, and then 60 and 62 — all 13 of which were prepared for this first season of the ever-developing Ellen, known originally as These Friends Of Mine.
01) Episode 1: “Pilot” (Aired: 03/29/94)
Ellen struggles to get a good picture at the DMV, while Holly dates a possible sleaze.
Written by Carol Black & Neal Marlens & David S. Rosenthal | Directed by Neal Marlens
The pilot for These Friends Of Mine feels very much like Seinfeld, centering its star in a relatable, everyday scenario — frustration at the DMV, specifically regarding her driver’s license photo — while also framing her inside an ensemble of city-dwellers whose romantic pursuits, despite a lack of sentimentality, also suggest a major thematic source for future plots. It’s thus quite indicative of this original iteration of the series, and though the banter between the friends is initially slick and polished, the show only really shines when Ellen herself is at the fore, as will eventually become obvious to both us and them. (Giovanni Ribisi appears.)
02) Episode 2: “The Anchor” (Aired: 03/30/94)
Ellen feels bad after insulting an annoying friend she’s trying to avoid.
Written by David S. Rosenthal | Directed by Rob Schiller
My choice for this year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode), “The Anchor” is the funniest half hour from Season One, boasting a guest turn by future regular Clea Lewis as the obnoxious Audrey Penney, who will gradually become more involved in the show over the course of its second year. In her debut, she’s a nuisance whom Ellen is trying to avoid. But when Audrey accidentally overhears Ellen insulting her — thanks to a call-waiting gag that this script effectively sets up in a very Seinfeld-ian manner — Ellen then feels bad, in evidence of a personality trait that gets first exposure here. That is, the people-pleasing aspect of Ellen’s character is introduced in a major way, and that’s smart — her fear of upsetting/offending others (like Mary Richards was) is a respectable, relatable flaw that implies possibilities for additional story. Meanwhile, there are a few chuckles in the subplot with Holly and her fake breasts (with guest Lane Davies), and Greg Germann debuts in his recurring role as kooky neighbor Rick (who appears three times in Season One). So, with the star centralized, a future regular introduced, and the ensemble part of this year’s identity reinforced, this is a winner.
03) Episode 6: “The Hand That Robs The Cradle” (Aired: 04/27/94)
Ellen tries to act and dress more youthful when she goes out with a younger man.
Written by Mark Driscoll | Directed by Andrew D. Weyman
This is the only segment on my list produced after the retooling — when writers were replaced, Anita was swapped for Joe, and the bookstore became a more prominent locale. In general, no actual improvements were made, for the show is still lacking an ensemble of well-defined characters, and the premise is essentially the same — with a demand for funny ideas. The only thing that’s just about to crystalize now is the fact that this series, given its basic lack of identity, nevertheless works best as a pure star vehicle, where its lead can anchor comic scenarios that highlight the amenable persona viewers like. This clichéd story — of Ellen trying to act young when she dates a man her junior (Peter Krause) — affords her the chance to emphasize her jittery physicality, with many opportunities to fill in the blanks as a clown.
04) Episode 9: “The Refrigerator” (Aired: 08/09/94)
Complications ensue when Ellen agrees to let Anita get her a discount refrigerator.
Written by Richard Day | Directed by Rob Schiller
Another entry that makes plain the early affiliations to Seinfeld, this episode finds Adam embroiled in a George Costanza-like scheme to fraudulently claim pain and suffering after a car accident. (The only difference is he’s a more reluctant participant, while George would be the eager, aggrieved ringleader.) That’s not the only scheming though, as Ellen agrees to use Anita’s discount to get a new refrigerator — a choice that leads to complications as she keeps having to move the fridge back and forth from her apartment to Anita’s. It’s funny visual comedy (reminiscent of Friends’ popular couch scene) that points These Friends Of Mine into a direction that Ellen will more frequently be heading. (Kurt Fuller and Don Stark guest.)
05) Episode 62: “The Mugging” (Aired: 05/21/96)
Adam lies about seeing his girlfriend being mugged.
Written by David S. Rosenthal | Directed by Rob Schiller
One of the two excursions held until 1996, this installment was produced before Season One’s midpoint retooling, but it’s prescient about the series’ future, for the two women in the “hangout” ensemble are only included in one scene, with the rest of the story focusing instead on Ellen and Adam — a duo with stronger chemistry. Its script is another that gives Adam something of a George Costanza persona (which does not carry into Two), as cowardice and scheming lead to comedic conflict, this time with a weekly girlfriend played by Mariska Hargitay. I’m not crazy about the particulars of this plot, but Ellen is well-featured, characterizations are suggested, and Greg Germann’s Rick adds laughs. (Dave Florek also appears.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Tape,” which claims a moderately amusing but overly familiar A-story that was previously used more effectively on Mad About You and is only truly memorable for guesting Brian McNamara, Earl Boen, and Elinor Donahue. I’ll also take this space to cite “The Soft Touch,” where Ellen Morgan behaves very much like the people-pleasing Mary Richards (when she gives a man she feels bad for a job), and “The Go-Between,” where Ellen is appropriately anxious when caught between Adam and her recurring boss Susan (who only appears here in the series’ first season).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Ellen goes to…
Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!