You Can't Go Home Again, Again
In April of 1997, comedian Ellen DeGeneres made television history when she, along with her sitcom alter ego, Ellen Morgan, came out of the closet. Ellen became the first series to feature an out and proud lesbian as the show’s main character, as well as the only show to star an openly gay actor. The following year, ABC pulled the plug on the series due to “low ratings.” In May 1998, Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story about the series’ cancellation in which ABC Entertainment Chairman Stuart Bloomberg claimed Ellen‘s audience diminished because, “as it became more politicized and issue-oriented, it became less funny and the audience noticed.” Translation: the show was too gay.
Three years, one HBO special, and one highly publicized break-up later, Ellen has returned to primetime in a new sitcom, The Ellen Show. Originally, CBS announced that the comedian would be headlining a weekly variety show, but after shooting a pilot, both DeGeneres and the network agreed it was not the best format to showcase her talents. A weekly variety series needs a performer who specializes in character sketch comedy, like Carol Burnett or Tracy Ullman. Unlike these women, and more like Jerry Seinfeld or Sandra Bernhard, DeGeneres is at her best when she’s playing herself.
And that’s exactly what Ellen is doing once again. This time around, she’s Ellen Richmond, a dotcom executive who (in the series pilot) returns to her hometown to receive an award from her high school in recognition of her success in the business world. When her Los Angeles-based company tanks while she’s at home, she decides to extend her visit indefinitely and move back in with her eccentric mother Dot (Cloris Leachman) and younger sister Catherine (Emily Rutherford). And, in case you were wondering, Ellen Richmond, like Ellen Morgan, is also a lesbian.
But if your eyes are turned towards overt queer representation on primetime tv, don’t expect a “very special episode” of The Ellen Show any time soon. The pilot makes it clear that “the gay thing” is no longer an issue. In other words, CBS probably wanted it clear from the start that this, unlike her previous series, is not a “lesbian show,” but a show in which the main character just happens to be a lesbian—an uneasy and unclear difference to be sure. Consequently, Ellen’s mother and sister have no problem with Ellen’s sexuality, nor do her former high school teacher Mr. Munn (Martin Mull) or her senior prom date Rusty (Jim Gaffigan). In fact, Mr. Munn is so “okay” with it all that he wastes no time trying to set Ellen up with Bunny, the school’s lesbian gym teacher (Diane Delano). Of course, the all too easy joke here is that if there is only one lesbian in a tiny town like Clark (other than the newly arrived Ellen, that is), it’s no surprise she’s the high school gym teacher, the most cliched of all lesbian professions. I bet if Bunny were a gay man, he would be the drama coach or the town florist.
If Ellen’s first series was too gay for ABC, it certainly wasn’t for fans. And they will probably think the new show is not gay enough, because her sexuality seems so incidental (as opposed, for instance, to her man-hungry sister). But that’s no surprise, considering CBS is playing it safe by scheduling the series in a time slot (Friday nights, 8pm) when viewers are more apt to tune into Sabrina, the Teenage Witch than Ellen, the Thirtysomething Lesbian. Some may consider it a sign of progress that CBS has even scheduled a prime-time series centered around a lesbian before 9pm, even if her sexual orientation is a “non-issue.” But, in the case of The Ellen Show, the end result is yet another formulaic, mediocre sitcom that any comedian could have been easily plugged into. More importantly, I don’t think merely depicting our lives in the same cartoonish, sitcom manner that our heterosexual brothers and sister have been subjected to for decades is what gay activists were fighting for in their struggle for equality.
What I enjoy most about DeGeneres is her self-deprecating style of humor, on which she capitalized in her creation of Ellen Morgan. The first Ellen was out of step with the world. She was extremely self-conscious and suffered from bouts of low-self esteem. She also found most social situations awkward, even when they involved her family and close friends. Yet, her nervous energy and the fun she seemed to have while laughing at herself is what made her so appealing. More importantly, we witnessed something extremely rare for a situation comedy: a television character actually evolved over time, to the point where she not only came out of the closet, but went on her first date, and began her first relationship with a woman.
By comparison, Ellen Richmond is more confident and worldly, with just a little hint of self-consciousness. Once again, she is a fish-out-of-water, but this time it’s because she’s is not in synch with the simplicity and slow pace of small town living. So the situation is now reversed. Instead of identifying with Ellen’s vulnerable side, we find ourselves, like her, to be in the “superior” position. Consequently, the humor consists of an endless series of one-liners about Clark’s size (i.e., everyone Ellen runs into knows what’s going on in her life), and usually at the expense of the other characters, who seem more like Thornton Wilder caricatures.
For example, Ellen’s sweet, relatively naive sister Catherine, who is desperate to land a husband (so much for the show’s sexual politics), is reduced to a running joke as she flies after every single man that crosses her path. The same goes for Ellen’s daffy mother, played by the terrific Cloris Leachman, who is wasted in her very small role. Like the rest of Clark, Dot lives in her own world, which makes it all the more challenging for the sometimes verbally-impaired Ellen to get her point across. But after one or two of these mother-daughter moments, the routine starts to wear thin.
The one glimmer of hope for the series lies in Ellen’s decision to accept a job at her old high school as a guidance counselor. It not only gives the show’s writers the opportunity to introduce new characters (maybe even another lesbian gym teacher?), but it can move the show away from its “city girl vs. small town” premise, which only limits DeGeneres’ talents to reacting to the absurdities of her surroundings. But in its current Friday night slot, which makes the chances of adding any romance into Ellen’s life virtually nil, the show’s future looks grim. One can only hope that when Ellen makes her next move, it will be over to Showtime or HBO, where there’s more room for innovation and risk-taking, in original programming where gay men and lesbians can actually have sex lives.