Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding our coverage of Ellen (1994-1998, ABC), which has been released on DVD and is currently available on Amazon Prime.
Ellen stars ELLEN DeGENERES. With JOELY FISHER, JEREMY PIVEN, CLEA LEWIS, DAVID ANTHONY HIGGINS, STEVEN GILBORN, ALICE HIRSON, and LISA DARR.
After the legendary “coming out season” of Ellen, this is the more infamous “gay season,” where the character of Ellen Morgan is now officially a lesbian, and this mediocre sitcom looks like it finally has a unique “situation” to explore in weekly story. It became infamous because of all the intense criticism (even by gay advocates), and the dwindling numbers that led to network interference and eventually cancellation, with the show’s decline essentially blamed on the fact that it was “too gay” and therefore unappealing to a broad, mass audience. I think there’s probably some truth there — for while the initial novelty of the reveal (a self-admitted gimmick) got attention, there was never any chance that a majority of those one-time viewers were going to stick around for the aftermath. Nothing like this had ever been widely popular to date and it was unlikely to happen on a show with an established reputation for mediocrity. So, when Season Five failed to live up to the hype of the previous year — and numbers began to fall — the biggest change (Ellen’s orientation) became the obvious excuse. However, Ellen has always been so-so; the dip between this year and the others is not that great. Oh, yes, I do think it’s a letdown, for a few reasons, but simply saying Ellen became “too gay” doesn’t get to the heart of it. If anything, I would say instead that the show became “too exclusively gay.” Let me explain… For starters, it’s actually a good thing for this series to be able to play in story with this new wrinkle to its lead’s “situation,” particularly because Ellen has always struggled to settle into a communicable identity, and indeed, this whole coming out arc was expressly intended to provide a sense of purpose, an engine for plot connected to the series’ sense of self. And in fact, just like the last few episodes of Four, I think the first few episodes of Five do a terrific job mining laughs and story from Ellen’s new “status quo” — validating this fresh character-rooted aspect of its premise in the process. These entries might be “too gay” for viewers who just don’t like that Ellen Morgan is now a gay character, but in terms of sitcommery, the show is operating at the peak of its capabilities — funny, character-based, and “situation”-affirming. Unfortunately, after this, quality quickly erodes — and it’s not only because of waning novelty.
There are two big blunders, I think. The first is that this new conception of Ellen’s “situation” doesn’t have enough of an affiliation, in weekly story, with what the series used to be. Gone is the workplace that DeGeneres consciously insisted upon creating as a gathering place and launching pad for story, tying her series to a regular locale with a regular ensemble — an ensemble that is now being minimized too, with nobody appearing in every episode anymore, and folks like Spence, Joe, and Audrey randomly shoehorned into plots where it doesn’t make much sense for them to be, since they don’t live or work with Ellen. This disconnection from the trappings of the show’s previous existence — however mediocre en masse — severs the continuity between what Ellen is and was, such that this looks like an entirely different series. You might think this is okay, but it’s not, for this is now starting to feel more like a sitcom about a gay woman, instead of a sitcom about a character whom we know, Ellen — and in an era where acceptance of such a premise was always going to be a challenge, this does appear to be a calculated mistake. Heck, even today, the notion that the totality of a person’s life/character is their sexual orientation will always be false and therefore off-putting — to those who take issue with it and those who don’t — so reducing the elements of the “situation” that Ellen Morgan can interact with in weekly story outside of fixtures attached to this new development is unideal, as it makes it seem like the only meaningful part of this character’s world is the fact that she’s now a lesbian. Obviously, it is meaningful — and we want stories about it — but it shouldn’t be the only thing. Additionally, a sitcom with a troubled history shouldn’t be limiting valid, “situation”-connected sources of story at all, especially with a previously solid, decently defined ensemble specifically cultivated over three seasons to ameliorate the side effects of chronic identity issues. Pushing them to the side now only implies that, even though Ellen looks like it has a new premised purpose and has thus come into its own, it’ll never be stable because it’ll never be totally secure. And when I say this year of Ellen isn’t “too gay” but “too exclusively gay,” I mean that “gay” has almost become the “situation” exclusively, confining both the character and the show when they can’t afford to be confined. They need more opportunity.
The year’s second big blunder is its decision to give Ellen a permanent love interest — Laurie (Lisa Darr), whom she meets in the year’s fifth episode and stays with for the rest of the run. Now, we want Ellen to date women and even become serious with one, as that’s a way to explore the “situation” in premise-validating story. But having a serious relationship begin so early in Five, and keeping it for the duration, is more restrictive than inspiring, precluding a lot of other possibilities. And, frankly, it doesn’t make sense — we know Ellen as a bumbler who’s never been in a viable romance. Is it merely from switching her orientation that she’s suddenly capable? Surely, it will be easier (eventually), but such an interpretation reduces her whole characterization to her orientation, and it’s neither amusing nor thoughtful (nor congruous with her continuity, which expects goofiness). Thus, when I say “too exclusively gay” I also mean, literally, it was a mistake to keep Ellen’s dating life as a gay woman exclusive. To that point, Laurie’s presence doesn’t only hinder Ellen, she’s also a problem for the show’s comic objective, as she’s just not funny. That is, since Ellen is supposed to be the awkward neophyte, Laurie is pushed into the role of stoic “straight man,” with no comedic shape or capacity to inspire story. Yes, there’s one entry that tries to give her a conflict-making persona, but it’s never followed through on, so it effectively feels like Ellen is replacing an ensemble of comic players with a dull narrative device. And pairing her with Ellen as the principal way of engaging Ellen’s new identity means that this new identity becomes tedious, earning some of the criticism that made the network then want to back away from Ellen’s sexuality. So, while it’s easy to say this show was cancelled because Ellen came out, I think it really ended because Ellen wasn’t ever good enough to sustain a controversial change, with writing that was always so-so and a conception of self that couldn’t inspire confidence, even within. DeGeneres’ choice to live authentically and reflect this on her sitcom turned Ellen into a cultural touchstone — one worth discussing today (there’s probably no Will & Grace without Ellen) — but no development could fix the consequences of deep-seated insecurities. Those existed whether Ellen was Seinfeld-like, Lucy-like, MTM-like, or Friends-like, and whether she was straight, sexless, closeted, or gay.
01) Episode 88: “Guys Or Dolls” (Aired: 09/24/97)
Ellen questions herself when she has feelings for an old boyfriend.
Written by Ric Swartzlander | Directed by Gil Junger
Season Five opens with one of the best episodes of the entire series, courtesy of a story that uniquely explores the recent change in Ellen’s “situation” while also engaging much continuity from the show’s established history. Specifically, this installment guest stars William Ragsdale as Dan — Ellen Morgan’s most prominent former love interest, who appeared in three second season entries and is smartly brought back here as an avatar for all the men she once dated, affording her the chance to question her recent “coming out” and again affirm it to us. Although Dan’s previous showings were all subpar, because Ellen has never had believable romantic chemistry with any man, DeGeneres’ newfound lightness gives them a more enjoyable rapport, and this script is very funny, relishing in the novelty of Ellen being a new lesbian.
02) Episode 89: “Social Climber” (Aired: 10/01/97)
Ellen pursues a woman very into athletics.
Written by Mike Larsen | Directed by Gil Junger
What I most appreciate about this offering is that it utilizes the fact that Ellen is now gay — since she’s expressly pursuing an attractive woman (Dedee Pfeiffer) — but beyond that point, it also feels like it could have existed back in say, Season One or Two, when Ellen was having romance troubles and being goofy, going to great lengths just to secure a date. Accordingly, this story is connected to what we know of Ellen’s characterization, in a way that I think too much of Season Five forgets. Also, I enjoy that there’s a psychical centerpiece — rock-climbing — that takes advantage of one of DeGeneres’ known strengths, while Ellen’s partner-in-crime for this half hour is Spence, a character who gets unnecessarily phased out as the year progresses.
03) Episode 90: “Roommates” (Aired: 10/08/97)
Ellen mistakes a prospective roommate for a prospective girlfriend.
Written by Dan Cohen & F.J. Pratt | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Among the best episodes of the series, this MVE contender was close to securing that honor — it’s better than the best from the first three years and is only surpassed here by one undeniably hilarious selection below. At any rate, “Roommates” has fun continuing to play with the recent change in Ellen’s “situation” via the lingering uncomfortableness that Paige exhibited as a result of her best friend’s coming out. Although the two characters had a brief resolve at the end of Season Four where they hugged, Ellen rightly knows that it wasn’t emotionally complete, so it uses this installment to genuinely cement Paige’s acceptance. (And this is necessary, for Paige is the show’s best ensemble player, and she’s the one most present this year.) Meanwhile, there’s a farcical scenario set up where Ellen believes a woman who’s hoping to become her roommate (Andrea Bendewald) is actually a prospective girlfriend — a natural setup for a lot of laughs. If only Ellen was able to remain this smart, funny, and situation-affirming for the rest of the season! (Jennifer Grant also appears, while Norman Fell makes a cameo as Mr. Roper.)
04) Episode 91: “Gay Yellow Pages” (Aired: 10/15/97)
Ellen feels pressured to favor gay-owned businesses.
Written by Tod Himmel & Lisa K. Nelson | Directed by Gil Junger
Ellen’s hot streak continues with this incredibly funny offering that engages Ellen’s new “situation” by depicting the gay lifestyle as a whole new world unto itself, with the recurring Peter (Patrick Bristow) ushering his friend into the community. The story is a lot of fun, as Ellen then feels pressured to prioritize gay-owned businesses in support of her new community, especially in advance of a sort of “coming out party,” where she’ll be introduced to a lot of new friends. It’s an idea that’s specific to the recent changes in Ellen’s life, and best of all, it also deploys elements that connect it to the past as well — not only Peter, but also all of the main ensemble players, who mix and mingle in Ellen’s new world in a way that the rest of the season should have continued. Thus, I use this segment as proof that Ellen becoming “too gay” was not the problem — Ellen becoming “too exclusively gay,” when other elements were lost, was. (In addition to Jack Plotnick, John Capodice and Meagen Fay also guest.)
05) Episode 92: “Just Coffee?” (Aired: 10/29/97)
Ellen gets mixed signals when she tries to pursue her mortgage broker.
Written by Maxine Lapiduss | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Ellen’s romance with Laurie begins in this episode, and I’ll reiterate the thoughts I shared above — I believe the choice to make such an unfunny character a major part of the entire season was a core reason that it ultimately disappoints, limiting story and laughs for both Ellen and the show, while pigeonholing the year’s new “situation.” However, in needing to finish a list of ten favorites, I have bumped up her debut, for of all the “milestone” entries in their relationship, this is the funniest, largely because Ellen is still awkward and fidgety, like we know her to be (and expect her to be, as she’s a neophyte at being with other women), and there’s still support from the previous and well-liked members of the ensemble. (Constance Zimmer also appears.)
06) Episode 94: “Public Display Of Affection” (Aired: 11/12/97)
Ellen’s new girlfriend’s daughter does not seem to like her.
Written by David Walpert | Directed by Gail Mancuso
The second excursion with Laurie is, like her debut, still more Ellen-centric than later showings, staving off the inevitable damage from a personality-less and therefore unfunny partner. Here, the conflict instead stems from Ellen’s tension with Laurie’s daughter (the recurring Kayla Murphy), and it mostly contends with the lead’s own personal arc, as we learn the reason Laurie’s daughter doesn’t like Ellen is because she believes Ellen is still embarrassed about her orientation (as evidenced by her uncomfortableness with PDA). It’s an interesting character-based idea — not hilarious, but the script is enlivened by scenes with Ellen’s parents and her two gal pals: again, sustaining elements of the “situation” that Five otherwise undermines.
07) Episode 95: “Emma” (Aired: 11/19/97)
Ellen encourages Emma Thompson to come out of the closet.
Written by Lawrence Broch | Directed by Gail Mancuso
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Emma” is a tour de force for Emmy-winning guest star Emma Thompson, and in the sense that it’s an atypical sample of the series that relies so heavily on an element that’s not a regular part of its “situation,” I seriously debated instead singling out the aforementioned “Roommates,” which is more indicative of Season Five and what it should have been offering. However, I simply couldn’t deny the sheer comic force of this half hour, which stands as the funniest and most laugh-laden segment of the entire series, making it so that if I ignored the opportunity to recognize it above all its competition, I would betray both my own opinion and Ellen’s modus vivendi. Also, despite the fact that it might otherwise seem unideal as a result of its one-off gimmickry, the subject matter plays directly into the show’s current identity here in Five, with the reveal that Thompson is a closeted lesbian thereby corroborating Ellen’s newfound thematic purpose, allowing the Ellen Morgan character to help usher out a famous gay woman (just as she recently experienced herself). Even better, though, is the bigger reveal: Emma Thompson isn’t just a closeted lesbian, but a closeted American — a hysterical gag that adds to the whole idea’s lunacy and makes this sketch-like notion so comedically rambunctious that criticisms are drowned out in favor of guffaws. And, ultimately, since the saving grace of Ellen has always been its comic rewards — in the absence of a truly stable “situation” — there’s no better justification for taking this attitude when examining the series than “Emma.” (Sean Penn also memorably appears.)
08) Episode 101: “Escape From L.A.” (Aired: 01/28/98)
Ellen and Laurie go on vacation together.
Written by Tod Himmel & Lisa K. Nelson | Directed by Gil Junger
I referenced this installment in my essay, for this is the one time where it seems like effort was made to give Laurie something of a personality — specifically, an exaggerated anal retentiveness and a palpable aversion to spontaneity that clashes against the childlike Ellen, who, in accord with everything we know of her from past seasons, is sillier and more free-spirited. The differences between them create conflict when they go on vacation together — a milestone in any relationship — and while it’s not anywhere near great, I appreciate that the show is at least attempting to cultivate laughs and story based on characters in juxtaposition. I just wish Laurie was afforded more characterization suggestions elsewhere; outside of this, she has nothing.
09) Episode 103: “Neighbors” (Aired: 02/18/98)
Ellen keeps embarrassing herself in front of her neighbors.
Teleplay by Cynthia Greenburg & Charmaine Dixon | Story by Kit Pongetti | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Ellen DeGeneres was nominated for an Emmy from her work in this episode, which comes at a point in the season where Ellen is stepping back from its character’s sexual orientation by offering more stories that have nothing to do with it (interspersing them with low-key, quasi-dramas featuring laugh-killer Laurie). These aren’t a worthwhile remedy because we want the show to engage its “situation” in full — balancing what’s new about her character’s life with what’s been established over the entire run. But, at any rate, this is a gag-heavy plot that deliberately tries to invoke the spirit of what Ellen once was, contriving a string of scenarios where she ends up embarrassing herself in front of her new neighbors. None of it is exceptional, but DeGeneres gets to clown, and that’s basically Ellen’s raison d’être.
10) Episode 104: “It’s A Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay World” (Aired: 02/25/98)
Spence dreams of a world where gay is straight and straight is gay.
Written by David Walpert | Directed by Gil Junger
This is one long gimmick — a dream sequence where the show winks at its own identity by having a world where straight is gay (“abnormal”) and gay is straight (“normal”). It’s an idea-driven notion with easy laughs that don’t really come by way of character or anything cleverly constructed. But it does stem from the show’s thematic interests and its new reputation, so it’s not out of Ellen’s acceptable purview here in Five. Also, I appreciate that it uses members of the old ensemble — especially Jeremy Piven’s Spence, who carries a lot of the biggest jokes. So, this isn’t the kind of show I would regularly like or want any series to do often, but beggars can’t be choosers now (the end of Five is filled with one-off stunts — including a memorable-yet-mediocre entry with Anne Heche), and this one mostly works. (Guests include Harvey Fierstein, Neil Flynn, Charles C. Stevenson Jr., and Bunny Summers.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Womyn Fest,” which pairs Ellen with Paige and Audrey but has some obvious narrative goals that render the whole thing less enjoyable, and “Like A Virgin,” which boasts a great idea for Ellen’s arc but never rises to the comedic occasion. I’ll also take this space to cite “Ellen In Focus,” a sketch-like entry that utilizes Paige’s career, and two offerings related to Ellen’s new radio job, “All Ellen, All The Time,” and “When Ellen Talks, People Listen,” the latter of which deploys her characterization decently but really craves bigger laughs.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Ellen goes to…
Come back next week for Becker! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!