Judge Diane Wild grudgingly hands out a guilty verdict, after giving Ellen every reasonable chance.
Our review of Ellen: The Complete First Season, published October 6th, 2004, is also available.
See a groundbreaking sitcom long before it broke any ground.
Ellen's 5-year run seems to have been designed to dare audiences to follow it through its many permutations. It went through a name change, major cast comings and goings, scheduling vagaries, and inconsistent characterizations. Never mind Ellen's famous coming out as a lesbian in the 5th season and how that might have affected viewership- many of us had given up on the show long before that.
Facts of the Case
Ellen Morgan (Ellen DeGeneres, Finding Nemo) has just bought a bookstore, oh-so-cleverly called Buy the Book, which comes complete with wacky coffee bar owner Joe (David Anthony Higgins, Malcolm in the Middle), who is rarely integral to the plot but often gets the best quips (""What's everyone's problem?" a petulant Ellen asks when her friends are annoyed with her. Joe: "Well, life is essentially meaningless, but we're afraid of dying.")
Ellen is sadly single, pressured by her parents to find a nice man to settle down with, and dates her share of losers. Her similarly single pals include Adam (Arye Gross, Soul Man), a photographer who dabbles as an apartment handyman and resident manager, and who watches a lot of television in Ellen's apartment, and Paige, a studio executive who is supposedly promiscuous in the rare moments when she's not hanging out at Ellen's apartment. Rounding out the sad singletons is the occasional appearance by the obnoxiously annoying but frequent bright spot Audrey (Clea Lewis, Diabolique), whose incessant perkiness and pink-clad sassiness at least distinguishes her from the other bland characters surrounding our heroine.
In its first season, it was known as These Friends of Mine (except on DVD, where a bit of revisionist history calls it Ellen: The Complete Season One) and premiered the same year as another, more successful show with the word "Friends" in the title. It came back in Season Two as simply Ellen, abruptly shedding two of these friends of hers (including Maggie Wheeler, who showed up occasionally as Janice on that other show) and introducing a new best friend, Paige, whose entrance is as underexplained as their exits. The writers seemed to be hoping we wouldn't notice she wasn't hanging out with the gang before.
I watched the first couple of seasons because I wanted to like it, because Ellen DeGeneres was an engaging and slyly hilarious standup comedian whose natural wit would have made a groundbreaking sitcom, a la Seinfeld. Instead, she got pedestrian sitcom writers who diluted her humor, and a supporting cast who didn't come close to matching her goofy charm. Like Jerry Seinfeld, DeGeneres is not a natural actor, but is nevertheless appealing onscreen. Unlike Seinfeld, and unlike her current talk show, she ended up in a starring vehicle that did not play to her strengths—and often played against them.
The DVD cover calls it a groundbreaking show, but Season Two is before Ellen DeGeneres or her character Ellen Morgan came out, becoming the first gay lead character of a network show, which was the only remotely cutting-edge facet of this series. Hindsight is perfect, but even at the time, critics grumbled about her lack of chemistry with any romantic pairings. An on-again, off-again smoochfest with Dan the Pizza Boy in particular is about as sexy as watching siblings make out. That's not to say that because DeGeneres is gay she can't possibly be convincing as a heterosexual—many actors are quite good at pretending to be something they're not. But because DeGeneres is gay and not a particularly great actor, the result is not convincing.
The critical failure of the show is the bland humor that can be seen on any random channel for free at any given moment. DeGeneres's own humor is anecdotal storytelling at its funniest, but in this show she's usually shoehorned into standard one-liners. I would often only realize they were supposed to be jokes because the laugh track kicked in, and other times I could appreciate the fact that they were funny back in my grandparents' day ("I floss religiously—Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashana"). In the episode "So Funny," Kathy Najimy guest stars as Adam's friend Theresa, whose reputation for being the funniest person in the room stirs up jealousy in Ellen. And Theresa is much funnier than Ellen, because she uses DeGeneres's patented storytelling shtick. But you have to hand it to a show that points out how much funnier its jokes could be if only the writing were consistently better.
Ellen usually forced its protagonist into convoluted, unbelievable scenarios, like putting her in her parents' custody after she's arrested at an animal rights protest to milk the 30-something-woman-as-teenager dry for 22 minutes. Some themes the audience might be able to relate to, like Ellen's desire to have everyone like her, or her jealousy of someone who is better at something she excels at, could have added more weight to this feather-light fare, but the writing is never strong enough to sustain it. More damaging, though, is the fact that the characters mutate depending on the needs of the joke or the storyline, so that none have any consistency or audience loyalty. Even by the end of the second season, this gang of friends had not gelled into a cohesive group I'd want hanging out in my living room.
Not surprisingly, given her public criticism over the treatment of and cancellation of this series, DeGeneres's participation is conspicuously absent from the DVD set. The only extras, other than cast biography text, are two commentaries by Joely Fisher and David Anthony Higgins on "The Trainer" and "Mrs. Koger." They don't mention Ellen by name and only tangentially comment on her. However, their amiable chatter is reasonably entertaining as well as having some educational value—they explain the difference between a prop and a set dressing (an actor handles a prop), and what category a watch falls into—wardrobe in Canada, props in the US. They also express distress over the way Arye Gross's character in particular suffered from the writers' indecision, and comment on their 10-years-ago appearances ("I'm cute!" Fisher says one too many times, and though it is cute to hear her exclaim on her big hair and early 90s fashions, it's a little disturbing to hear her call her thin self "round").
The 1.33:1 full frame transfer is hardly better than the average television broadcast, with visible grain and slightly washed out colors, while the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound renders the dialogue adequately but not spectacularly.
Maybe the show really was cancelled out of audience or network discomfort with a gay lead character. But Season Two doesn't offer a lot of evidence that it was worth saving even before that development. If you're a rabid fan of Ellen DeGeneres, Ellen is worth a rental. While singularly unfunny most of the time, it's not terrible—it's just a terrible waste of talent.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Joely Fisher and David Anthony Higgins on 2 episodes
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