In between her nineties sitcom, Ellen, with its groundbreaking “Puppy Episode,” and her current, very successful eponymous daytime talk show, Ellen DeGeneres starred in a short-lived sitcom for CBS called The Ellen Show. Thirteen episodes aired between September 2001 and January 2002 before it was cancelled.
Viewers now have the opportunity to revisit this show and to see the remaining six episodes that CBS never aired, with the recent release of The Ellen Show: The Complete Series on DVD ($29.95, Sony Entertainment).
In The Ellen Show, DeGeneres, who also served as Executive Producer with series creators Carol Leifer and Mitchell Hurwitz, stars as Ellen Richmond, a Los Angeles dot-com executive who returns to her hard-to-find-on-a-map hometown of Clark. The pilot brings Ellen to Clark for “Ellen Days,” where she will receive recognition from the town for being a successful former resident. While there, she receives news that her company has lost its funding. Now a veteran of four dot com companies–and a recent breakup–Ellen decides she doesn’t have much to return to in L.A. and moves in with her mother and sister in Clark.
The first few episodes feature Ellen learning the routines of her family, getting reacquainted with a former teacher (now principal) at her old high school and Rusty, the guy she dated back then (and now a high school teacher), before deciding to take a job at the high school as a guidance counselor. Big fish returns to small pond jokes abound as do playful references to her sexuality.
Yes, that breakup Ellen refers to in the pilot episode was with a woman, making The Ellen Show the first television comedy to focus on a lesbian lead character from its inception. The fact that the character did just go through a breakup gives the series a convenient excuse to not deal with the dating issue, at least in these first eighteen episodes. We’ll never know if Ellen would have been allowed to date had the series been renewed, but it certainly wasn’t headed in that direction.
In the episodes that were filmed, Ellen’s lesbianism is not ignored. In the pilot, Mr. Munn, the high school principal, played by Martin Mull, proudly introduces Ellen to the only other lesbian he knows: the P.E. (natch) teacher, Bunny Hopstetter (Diane Delano). And Ellen’s mother (Cloris Leachman) is sympathetic about the breakup, giving Ellen a warm hug when she hears the news: “I’m so sorry, I liked her so–she had such nice teeth.”
The good news is that the majority of the eighteen episodes contain at least some passing reference to Ellen’s sexuality, from the Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels, and Billie Jean King posters in her old bedroom (“Didn’t have a clue, huh, Mom?” Ellen wonders aloud) to Ellen looking in the phonebook for some nightlife opportunities and remarking, “The closest they have is the Lebanese meat market.”
Most of these are fleeting, matter-of-fact jokes and comments, so no one could say, as some critics had accused with Ellen, that The Ellen Show has a “gay agenda”,
Not all references to lesbianism in The Ellen Show are comedic. In episode 12, “A Bird in the Hand,” the issue of family heirlooms arises, with its oft attendant assumption that the eldest daughter inherits such things upon her marriage. Ellen argues that this isn’t fair, if the eldest daughter, like herself, ends up not being the marrying kind. This same episode explores clothing choices for non-femme lesbians, with the acknowledgement that Ellen isn’t a skirt-and-sweater-set kind of gal. When she does try on such an outfit, Ellen remarks, “I feel like John Lithgow in The World According to Garp.”
Pop culture references such as this make this show a nostalgic delight, as do appearances by guest stars Mary Tyler Moore and Betty White (former co-castmates of Leachman’s on The Mary Tyler Moore show) and Maureen McCormick (Marcia on The Brady Bunch). “One for the Roadshow,” the final episode filmed, is an homage to the popular PBS series Antiques Roadshow.