Thursday, February 28, 2013

These Friends Of Mine Makes For Remarkably Average Television And A Strikingly Average DVD.

The Good: The humor of Ellen DeGeneres
The Bad: Mediocre acting, Light on character development, Pretty standard sitcom, Lousy DVD extras
The Basics: Funny, but not exceptional, the average sitcom embodied by These Friends Of Mine (the first season of Ellen) is dragged down by only having one real DVD extra.

I have long been a fan of Ellen DeGeneres. Long before she came out of the closet and even before she had her own television shows, I would watch clips of her and her various specials on the early Comedy Central and marvel at her clever mind and wonderful wit. I loved her nonsequitors and style and I disturbed a friend of mine while reading her book My Point . . . And I Do Have One aloud by getting DeGeneres's cadence and timing down with what I am told was eerie accuracy. If I watched daytime television, I would almost certainly make it a priority to watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show. As it is, there are only so many hours in the day and when I had the opportunity to pick up Ellen - The Complete First Season on DVD, I leapt on it. I had been a fan of Ellen, though I had not seen much from the first season.

In its first season, the show was actually These Friends Of Mine and the series was retooled at the end of the first season such that very little survived the rework and much of the show was altered. This boxed set includes all thirteen episodes of These Friends Of Mine, including the two episodes that were held into the third season of Ellen which are included in this boxed set as "bonus" episodes. Sadly, this season is not up to the standards of the seasons that follow it and we'll explore why.

Ellen Morgan is working at the bookstore "Buy The Book" where she rambles through her day with explanations and monologues to her friends that are loaded with humor. She often finds herself in weird situations exacerbated by her own awkwardness, like her desire to have a decent photograph on her driver's license in the pilot. Ellen and her friends get into various comedic situations that illustrate their friendship or tolerance of Ellen. These circumstances include such things as Ellen testing her call waiting, her friend Holly stuffing her bra and getting a date as a result, Ellen and her friends answering personal ads for dates, going to a high school reunion, trying to get a promotion, Ellen dating a younger guy and hunting for the perfect refrigerator.

These are all pretty standard sitcom plots and the disappointing aspect of These Friends Of Mine is that the plots feel pretty standard. Take, for example, the episode "The Class Reunion." In this episode, Ellen goes to her class reunion and finds that in the fifteen years since graduating high school she has done the least of all her classmates. So, she asks Adam to pretend he is married to her and she pretends she is a cardiologist. This works out fine until her old high school crush arrives hoping to connect with Ellen but believes she is unavailable. Well, there's a plot that seems like it came straight from the situational comedy standards book. Even when watching the episode it feels that way.

The problem with These Friends Of Mine fundamentally is that the only thing that makes the show bearable and watchable is Ellen DeGeneres when she is doing her schtick. She reuses some of her standup lines in her stories she tells when she is digressing, but it works. It works to provide humor to an otherwise very common and dull viewing experience. Ellen is retooled because These Friends Of Mine did not quite work; the show focused quite closely on Ellen and not her friends. Indeed, in this debut season, the friends are not noteworthy or even all that interesting, making it hard to work with them.

The show tries to be about characters and here are the principle characters from the first season:

Ellen Morgan - A worker at Buy The Book and friend of Holly and Anita. She has a friend she does not like named Audrey and works with Joe. She has a roommate named Adam who is arguably her best friend. She rambles a lot in conversations bringing up loosely related points of conversation to wherever she began. She is physically awkward and often goofy, which leads her to have trouble finding or keeping a boyfriend. She is both very particular and very peculiar and wants - at the end of the day - for people to like her,

Holly - Ellen's shy friend whose high point is teaming up with Anita to try to sell some Mexican art,

Anita - Ellen and Holly's friend who works in a department store and is barely in even this season,

Audrey - Ellen's annoying friend who is increasingly negative. She is disaffected by almost everyone and everything and she expresses that negativity with a strange perkiness about disliking everything. This leads her and Ellen to often not see eye to eye and for Ellen to look for ways to avoid having her around,

Joe - The coffee guy at Buy The Book. He works with Ellen and is cynical and low-key, often expressing dissatisfaction for the way things are with dry irony,

and Adam Green - Ellen's roommate. He is a photographer who has a brutal love life that constantly ends up with him being alone. He has pretty low self confidence with women as a result and has a decent platonic friendship with Ellen and the two often find themselves leaning on one another.

The problem with These Friends Of Mine is that Ellen often ends up going into her trademark monologues when talking to Holly and/or Anita, which does not allow either one to truly get a word in and develop themselves as real characters. Instead, they become sounding boards for Ellen DeGeneres's humor and it's pretty easy to see why they did not last. Interestingly, the only significant DVD bonus feature is a commentary track on the first episode that features Holly Fulger (Holly) and Arye Gross (Adam), the former was written out after these thirteen episodes. "Written out" is not quite right; dropped like a sack of bricks would be more accurate.

The commentary track is mildly insightful, but not the best selling point to picking up this set. Indeed, the only reason to pick up These Friends Of Mine would be because one absolutely loves Ellen DeGeneres and her work. I fall into that category, but even that is not enough for me to keep this boxed set in my permanent collection.

That said, in addition to the mere presence of Ellen DeGeneres, and her performance as Ellen Morgan, there are some redeeming factors to Ellen - The Complete First Season on DVD. I was quite amused to see a younger Peter Krause of Six Feet Under (reviewed here!) fame in "The Hand That Robs The Cradle," one of the better episodes of the season. I liked Krause on Cybil and it's always fun to see some of his earlier work.

And when reviewing this DVD set so soon after watching and reviewing the first season of The Practice (reviewed here!), I was delighted to see Arye Gross (who played a rabbi in several of the early episodes of The Practice!) in such a different role as the lovelorn Adam. Gross is actually very funny and completely empathetic as Adam, which is not the easiest role to pull off when being paired with Ellen DeGeneres, who is a master of comedy. Gross manages to hold his own with a more subtle humor and the ability to play the straightman well.

Ultimately, Ellen DeGeneres falls down some on her own show. The reason for this is the character of Ellen Morgan does not require her to act so much as simply physically perform comedy and limit the duration of her standup routines thinly disguised as dialogue. Is she funny? Absolutely. Almost 100%, she's on and she's funny in These Friends Of Mine. But she's not acting.

Given how much the show rests on her and how standard too many of the plots are (though the dialogue is often wittier and funnier than the plots), the show just doesn't pop the way it ought to. The good news is, there are seasons after this one and they are much funnier and work much better.

For other first seasons of sitcoms, please check out my reviews of:
Cheers - Season 1
Friends - Season 1
Family Guy - The Complete First Season


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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