The Good: Funny, New character mix works well, Decent performances
The Bad: Light on DVD extras, Show still doesn't quite hit its stride.
The Basics: While very funny, the second season of Ellen is still not all it can be and it does not use the DVD medium well. Still worth owning!
I'm a bit of a fan of Ellen DeGeneres and it was honestly pretty hard for me to pan the first season of Ellen (reviewed here!) the other day, but the truth is, I can see why the show was retooled after the first season. Fortunately, after the retooling, the show worked quite a bit better (though it still wasn't up to where it gets to in the third season and beyond). On DVD, Ellen - The Complete Second Season features a show that is growing as a sitcom and is getting better with almost every episode, but does not use the DVD medium to its fullest.
For those unfamiliar with the late-'90's show Ellen, the show featured comedian-turned-actress Ellen DeGeneres as Ellen Morgan, a worker at a small bookstore called Buy The Book. In the second season, Ellen becomes the owner of Buy The Book, her friends from the first season have disappeared without a trace (or mention) and the supplemental characters from the first season, These Friends Of Mine, are given more weight. As a result, the show returns as an almost different series and, truth be told, this one works.
Ellen Morgan, now running Buy The Book, finds herself accompanied on numerous adventures by her vain friend Paige. She and roommate Adam continue to hang out when Ellen is not at work, but the photographer soon moves out and Ellen and Paige end up on more adventures together, sometimes accompanied by the uber-perky Audrey. In addition to taking over Buy The Book, this season, Ellen tries to ask out a dentist - but succumbs to laughing gas, becomes fixated on volunteering, dates a weird childhood friend, and gets to make-over the living space when Adam moves out. As well, she and Paige go to a spa in a buddy comedy shtick that is hilarious.
The show has some pretty standard plots, like Ellen deciding to take ballet lessons - which she always wanted to do as a child - but finding the dream doesn't match the goal. There is an episode where Ellen is robbed and then becomes obsessed with personal safety in a comedically over-the-top way and the only real twist on Ellen helping Audrey find an apartment is that Ellen works to situate her friend as far away from her as possible. There's the comedic reversal episodes, like "5,000 Dollars," where Ellen gets a tax refund, gives it to charity and the government recalls the money. And there are just silly concept shows, like Ellen participating on American Gladiators. And throughout the season, there are pretty standard dating foibles where Ellen tries dating various people . . . with hilarious results.
Ellen is definitely getting better when it returns retooled. Paige is a wonderful addition to the mix and having one close friend for Ellen eliminates the problem of developing multiple characters for Ellen to bounce her shtick off of. Indeed, the truly clever aspect of the retooling is that the show instantly returns with a more polished sense because Paige's character so perfectly fits Ellen's ramblings. Ellen rambles with her comedic non sequitors and Paige, being constantly self-absorbed, can simply return with the fact that she wasn't truly paying attention to Ellen and the show moves on. Paige is a wonderful fit for Ellen and slips into the niche (effectively) of Ellen's best friend, which displaces Adam some.
The show has some pretty standard sitcom plots, but in the second season Ellen comes into its own by using what makes Ellen DeGeneres funny. So, there is a greater use of DeGeneres's sense of physical comedy. Ellen Morgan is goofy, has an awkward body language when it comes to dating and exercise and when she attempts ballet, the results are appropriately hilarious.
But more than that, what makes Ellen distinct is the way Ellen Morgan goes into rambling monologues about things that have very little relation to whatever the situation going on in her life is. Ellen starts a conversation with herself and it plays off the other characters wonderfully as almost all of them end up as her straightman and her ability to carry a conversation without including anyone else is . . . eerie in addition to being funny.
But, unlike the first season, the characters now seem more suited specifically to making sure Ellen has characters that work as sounding boards without seeming like they are not their own actual characters. The principle characters in the third season include:
Ellen Morgan - A worker at, then owner of, Buy The Book, a small bookstore in Los Angeles. She obsesses on being liked by her coworkers and employees and often finds herself befuddled, not necessarily because of anyone else or anything in particular . . . it's just the way she is. Her apartmentmate and best friend, Adam, moves out, though Ellen finds herself spending more time with her friend Paige anyway. This season, she dates a guy who was weird when they were children together, a pizza deliveryman, and has fixations on Adam, a customer, and a dentist,
Paige - Bursting into the series is the vain, attractive, and promiscuous woman who works at a movie studio. She is often busy and gives Ellen less-than her full attention, though she does try to help Ellen out by taking her to a spa. She is also given her own things to do when she finds herself agonizing over a gift for her mother,
Joe - The mildmannered, though deeply sarcastic, coffee guy who works at Buy The Book and puts up with Ellen and the customers,
Audrey - While not yet a principle character, she appears in many of the episodes with her annoyingly perky disposition to bug Ellen and Paige. She and Ellen find they have a common sexual fixation when they both have dreams about Adam,
and Adam - Ellen's roommate and a photographer, he begins to find he has less time with Ellen than in the past. He moves out, wins a photo contest intended to reward a female photographer, and he makes a friend that Ellen is not wild about.
It seems every season of Ellen has a guest star for an episode that Ellen has a date with that I get psyched about seeing when I rewatch these DVDs. In the second season, the guest star worth mentioning is an appearance by Bradley Whitford of The West Wing (reviewed here!) and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (reviewed here!) and his appearance is funny and enjoyable for fans of his.
With the new mix in the cast, it's nice to see that the show not only works, but works better. Some shows when they retool, they destroy the concept of the original series that made it interesting (Spin City, I'm looking at you!). But the reworking of Ellen makes it decent and the second season is strong and funny, standing up on its own almost as a new series from the very first episode on the first disc. Indeed, those who avoid the first season of Ellen will be able to jump right in with this boxed set and not truly be missing anything important. With all twenty-four episodes on three discs, this is certainly a comedic value.
Part of the reason the show works so well is that Joely Fisher arrives on the first episode feeling like someone who has a natural chemistry with actress Ellen DeGeneres and the two have a great on-screen rapport. Fisher, who went onto the less inspired 'Til Death (season one DVD reviewed here!), has a wonderful sense of comedic timing and she plays the self-absorbed and promiscuous Paige with an effortless quality that causes her to steal almost every scene she is in.
Actor David Anthony Higgins, who plays Joe, is given a number of wonderful and truly biting lines throughout the season and his ability to play low-key and ironic allows him to play off Ellen DeGeneres's mania perfectly.
And this is very much a show held together and held up by the talents of Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres has a great wit and episode after episode, she delivers with humor that is consistent and unlike most other comedians. She has an amazing sense of wit that she brings to the program from the very beginning. As well, this season allows her to explore her sense of physical comedy more and, truth be told, that works out wonderfully for her.
In short, the cast comes together and the retooled effort pays off. The show is smart and consistently funny, if not terribly substantive. The characters are interesting, but the show still feels like an effort to sell Ellen DeGeneres (that's overcome in the NEXT boxed set!). It feels like an Ellen DeGeneres vehicle, which it is, but it's problematic because it feels too much like it is, you know?
On DVD, the boxed set is pretty depressing in that the only real bonus feature is commentary on two episodes. Ellen DeGeneres does not participate in the commentary and while it is interesting, it's not the most earth-shattering commentary track ever.
The result is a DVD set that has good (but not fabulous) material, with little to take advantage of the great medium that is DVD.
For other sophomore seasons of note, please visit my reviews of:
NewsRadio - Season 2
Frasier The Complete Second Season
Happy Endings - Season 2
For other television reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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