In the wake of The Cosby Show, one measure for standup comedians’ success is getting a sitcom, preferably based on the standup material. Some of these have worked wonderfully, like Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Roseanne. Some have been okay (Paul Reiser’s Mad About You and The Drew Carey Show), and others are complete duds (The George Carlin Show). In mid-1994, Ellen DeGeneres entered the fray with These Friends of Mine, which, by its second season, had been mercifully retitled Ellen.
A&E’s three-disc set, Ellen: The Complete Season Two, catches the show as it’s struggling to discover its identity and attitude. During its first season, Ellen felt a bit like a Johnny-come-lately, trying to copy Seinfeld and Friends, shows built around a group of single, funny friends. DeGeneres’ Ellen Morgan is a single bookstore owner living in Los Angeles surrounded by friends: nebbishy roommate Adam (Arye Gross); vivacious Paige (Joely Fisher); and sardonic coworker Joe (David Anthony Higgins). The DVD set includes commentary by Fisher and Higgins for the episodes “The Trainer” and “Mrs. Kroger,” which is pretty disappointing, since the person you really want to hear from is DeGeneres herself (to make matters worse, they spend the bulk of “The Trainer” commentary talking about how cute and sexy Fisher was in those days, which is anything but enlightening).
The second season tends to repeat the situation where Ellen Morgan gets into trouble because of her neuroses (she becomes a safety nut after being robbed in the episode, “Guns ‘N Ellen,” suspects her boyfriend of dealing drugs in “Thirty Kilo Man”), or, more often, highlights her adorable clumsiness (she makes amorous advances toward her dentist while under the influence of laughing gas in “The Dentist,” becomes a contestant on American Gladiators in “Gladiators”). DeGeneres is most impressive when the sitcom makes use of her standup style — rapid-fire, self-deprecating, observational humor — but most Ellen episodes feature few such occasions, relying instead on typical sitcom machinations.
Though the second season doesn’t include the historic moment when Ellen Morgan came out (this would happen in 1997), it does offer clues. More than anything else, it’s a matter of mood and atmosphere. Romance and love seem to be afterthoughts for this show rather than focal points. It’s as if task of portraying DeGeneres as a heterosexual character from the start seemed an awkward task. Over the 24 episodes about a single woman in her early 30s, the subject of men-and-romance only comes up rarely (for Ellen, that is; for Paige, it is her raison d’etre). When show does focus on Ellen’s love life, the action feels forced. DeGeneres is not convincing as a romantic lead (we need only look at Mr. Wrong for further evidence), and she’s limited by scripts wound up in Ellen Morgan’s identity as a heterosexual woman looking for Mr. Right.
We are more eager to see how Ellen is going to muck it up than to believe she’s looking for a partner. The two-part season finale, “Thirty Kilo Man,” is nearly unwatchable for this very reason: it focuses on Dan’s (William Ragsdale) return to the States. Ellen’s beau from earlier in the season, a pizza delivery man who might be a drug dealer, Dan only makes Ellen seem alienated Ellen from her friends. Season Two ends with the couple deeply “in love,” while Paige and Adam (and viewers as well) are left longing for the days before Ellen needed a love interest.
Ellen achieves its most effective comedic blows with DeGeneres’ underappreciated physical comedy. In “Ballet Class,” she attempts to fulfill a childhood dream of being a ballerina and nearly falls on her head; in “The Trainer,” she pretends to be Paige’s boss’ personal trainer and gets tangled up in a Bowflex machine; and, most memorably, in “The Spa,” Ellen and Paige try to escape from the spa in search of some sweet snacks.
For me, there is no warmer memory of Ellen than the image of DeGeneres and Fischer, dressed all in black, stuck on the fence (Ellen hanging, Paige between the bars), blaming one another for the predicament and trying to kick and punch each other. At such moments, Ellen sheds a conventional heterosexual sitcom setup, and DeGeneres reveals herself again as a sharp, funny, immediate comedian, not confused about her identity at all.