Monday, June 3, 2013

Ellen Comes Out Of Mediocrity With "The Complete Fourth Season!"

The Good: Funny, Socially relevant, Different, Well-written, Good character development, Sense of going somewhere
The Bad: DVD Extras are very light
The Basics: In the fourth season of Ellen, Ellen Morgan (eventually) comes out of the closet, with very few DVD extras.

One of my increasing number of pet peeves in the area of entertainment are television shows wherein a celebrity of one medium attempts to become a talent in television with a clear vehicle to cash in on their celebrity. I'm actually okay with that part; my problem is I get annoyed when these vehicles are so unoriginal and obvious that the writers cannot be bothered to change the name of the featured actor to create a character. So, for example, Michael J. Fox's comeback vehicle Spin City had Fox playing Michael Flaherty, Jim Belushi's pathetic entrance into sitcoms, According To Jim, did a similar thing, and on Ellen, Ellen DeGeneres plays Ellen Morgan. The only obvious vehicle that comes to mind that did not do this was Arsenio in which Arsenio Hall played a sportswriter named Michael, which I suppose would be like calling Matlock "Andy!," but it worked for me. By the fourth season of Ellen, I had pretty much accepted Ellen Morgan as a differentiated character from Ellen DeGeneres, until "Ellen's Deaf Comedy Jam" and "The Puppy Episode" in the fourth season wherein Ellen Morgan plugs one of Ellen DeGeneres's videos and Ellen Morgan comes out of the closet (which DeGeneres had done months prior).

Ellen - Season 4 is the season most fans of the series have been waiting for on DVD and this is the turning point for the series when, late in the season, Ellen Morgan comes out of the closet as a lesbian and the show becomes preoccupied with lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues in a heteronormal society. And bravo! It's about time! Ellen's "The Puppy Episode," a two-part celebrity-filled coming out episode that appears on the third disc in this boxed set turns the series on its head for the last few episodes and sets up the fifth season quite well.

For those unfamiliar with Ellen, the series focuses on Ellen Morgan, a rambling bookstore owner who is surrounded by friends who are vain, heartbroken, and/or just plain annoying. She is known for getting herself into problems like becoming over competitive while bowling or donating blood and then going to a wine tasting, but is more known for her digressions in conversation wherein she will talk herself into a completely different place than where she intended to go. She and her friends (and cousin Spence!) get themselves into a number of amusing situations this season that more distinctly create the characters of the world of Ellen, as opposed to simply moving along Ellen DeGeneres's career. This season, Ellen buys her own home, gets a boss, and deals with her parents separating. With her friends, Ellen works to help Paige get revenge on someone who put gum in her hair at camp twenty-five years before, takes a pregnancy test with Paige and Audrey but then mixes them up, and goes to rock and roll camp and a spiritual retreat. In many ways, the show is a typical twenty-two minute sitcom, though this season there is a nice sense of cohesion as the series ramps up to "The Puppy Episode" by making jokes and hints (like Ellen literally walking out of a closet of a house she's looking to buy in the second episode of the season) throughout.

To better understand this boxed set, it helps to know who the principle characters are. In this season, the show is stable with:

Ellen Morgan - Having decided to buy a house and sell the bookstore, Ellen finds herself struggling with her sexuality and working to reunite her parents, who are separated. She hangs out with her friends and slowly opens up to the possibility that she is a lesbian (and not just unlucky with men!). She is in therapy and finds herself valuing a new therapist when she finally comes to understand that she is gay,

Paige - Still self-centered, though less promiscuous now that she is (mostly) seeing Spence, she has difficulty with Ellen's coming out. She hires Spence to work at her office, is worried she might be pregnant, and gives her dog to Ellen while she goes on a vacation to Mexico,

Spence - Still floundering since he gave up on his dreams of working in the medical profession, he continues his on-again, off-again relationship with Paige. He is very protective of her when they are caught in a robbery at the book store, appreciates her attempt to keep him employed and becomes an amnesiac when they go to Las Vegas together,

Joe - Fired by the new boss, he discovers an old fashioned way to solve his money problems when he finds a wealthy woman to take care of him,

and Audrey - Still annoying, Audrey (who does not appear to be married anymore, despite mentioning a husband in her earliest appearances) falls in love with a deaf actor. She, too, takes a pregnancy test to help ease Paige's mind and is enthusiastic and supportive when Ellen comes out.

Episode-wise, the season is possibly the funniest and best of the series, despite "The Clip Show Patient," a cheap retrospective which immediately precedes the must-have-been-expensive "The Puppy Episode." On DVD, the real disappointment is the astonishing lack of extras. There is a commentary track featuring the writers on "The Puppy Episode," but there is really nothing more to look forward to from the DVD presentation. In other words, while there is great humor in the episodes and the show becomes socially important, this is not an incredible use of the DVD medium and is likely to disappoint those who wanted more.

The acting in this season is decent, with Joley Fisher, Clea Lewis and David Anthony Higgins all being given the chance to expand their parts and stretch their acting wings more. Jeremy Piven, who joined the cast as Spence in the third season (reviewed here!), has the best opportunities to gain airtime this season and he uses them well. Piven has an incredible sense of comic timing and he plays off Fisher and DeGeneres with impressive skill and a great sense of creating a genuine character. He steals ever scene he is in in "Makin' Whoopie" and "Hello, Dalai."

Ellen DeGeneres, ironically, illustrates more acting talent in this season than any of the prior ones. Instead of simply delivering her schtick, here she creates a character who actually has a struggle and works the entire season to develop her with realism and a sense of separate identity. And, for the most part, it works. The irony here is that when Ellen Morgan is made more like Ellen DeGeneres, the actress is able to make the character more distinctive and separate. So, instead of rambling old bits of DeGeneres's stand up comedy, Ellen Morgan becomes a character with a struggle and a humor that is more than simply DeGeneres looking to camera with her trademark blase deadpan. This season, DeGeneres illustrates she can act and she performs Ellen Morgan as a genuine character that seems more full of herself than in prior seasons.

But at the end of the day, this is an entertaining show and this boxed set provides good value for the money. These episodes hold up remarkably well over multiple viewings and there is something to be said about the social relevance of the show at this point. It is funny and poignant and it leads to something (the fifth season) quite well.

For other groundbreaking television comedies, please visit my reviews of:
Arrested Development - Season 4
The Lone Gunmen
Weeds - Season 1


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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