Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ellen - Season Five: The Peak Season No One Watched (Or Bought!)

The Good: Smart, Funny, Well-written, Decent acting, Good character development
The Bad: Lack of decent DVD bonuses, Somewhat preachy
The Basics: A worthwhile boxed set for fans of Ellen or Ellen DeGeneres comes in the form of the fifth season of Ellen, which presents an openly lesbian protagonist.

There's a strange irony associated with the television show Ellen, the sitcom that originated as a vehicle for the comedy of Ellen DeGeneres: the show's characters become better and more distinctive as characters when the show introduces real elements from the life of Ellen DeGeneres. Yes, strangely the characters become more actualized when the show becomes more autobiographical. As a result, the strongest season of the series may well be season five, now out on DVD.

Having come out of the closet as a lesbian in season four (reviewed here!), Ellen returned with a new direction and a new sense of energy . . . to a network run by Disney where the stockholders were exerting new influence and control over the programming. As a result, Ellen - Season Five would be the last of the season when it and Nothing Sacred were canceled due to pressures from conservative groups. It was a particularly spineless season for ABC, but on DVD, the fifth season of Ellen is preserves for posterity.

Between jobs, Ellen Morgan begins to flounder as she tries to adapt to being an out and proud lesbian and find steady employment. Ellen has her friends to rely on, though Paige continues to take issue with Ellen's lesbianism. Ellen finds herself getting into more and more capers, often as a result of her meddling - most notably with her separated parents, and she finds a new love interest who seems to offer her all she ever wanted.

I remember when the season began airing some people had a real problem with some of the openness of it, starting right off the bat with the season premiere. In the first episode of the boxed set, Ellen begins to question her sexuality. Conservatives loathed, of course, Ellen bringing up anything other than being heterosexual and there were many within the lesbian/gay/bisexual community who hated that Ellen would even question her hard lesbian stance with even the possibility of being bisexual. On DVD, the episode seems very reasonable and very real and surprisingly inoffensive (to anyone, actually). The members of the Community who fell away from the premiere ought to have been brought back by "It's A Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay World!" later in the season, which presents a homonormative world and it's a brilliant statement on tolerance.

With the fifth season of Ellen, the show takes a turn into wide open territory. The episodes are about a lesbian character exploring her newly-realized (or articulated) lesbianism. The show, yes, becomes about what it means to be lesbian in America in the late 1990s. And it's funny, it's quirky and it's socially relevant and poignant. In "Hospital," for example, the comedy explores the lack of civil rights for lifepartners in homosexual relationships and it is poignant and troubling to any who believe in love and the importance of spousal privilege.

So yes, this boxed set is not going to be on the Christmas list of anyone who is intolerant of lesbian/gay/bisexual rights and issues . . . but maybe it ought to be. What the fifth season of Ellen illustrates very well is the common humanity of all peoples and Ellen's sudden lesbianism does not so radically alter her character that she is not able to ramble with pointless segues and nonsequitors, it does not change her devotion to her friends or her desire to see her parents solve their relationship problems. Indeed, if nothing else, Ellen in this season reveals for those who might belabor under any other pretense, that being gay is simply ONE aspect of a personality and it need not be an oppressively dominant one. Ellen Morgan is almost the same as she was in the prior seasons, save she mentions being gay . . . well, a lot.

But coming out and being out gives the show a fertile new territory to explore. Ellen's prior failed relationships are almost written off as a function of her being gay until . . . she gets into a relationship and discovers ALL relationships are work and she doesn't relate easily to anyone! And there's the first time, dealing with Laurie's family (including her daughter), her friends, and finding employment . . . and just working on living with another person.

The boxed set is funny and relevant and clever and worthwhile, more than just for fans of Ellen. Indeed, this might be the most accessible boxed set since season two for simply jumping into the series.

For those unfamiliar with the series, this is who the principle characters of Ellen are and how the fifth season finds them:

Ellen Morgan - Learning what it is to be a part of gay and lesbian culture, Ellen stumbles into dating when she meets Laurie, a single mother who she is instantly attracted to. Ellen and Laurie work on forging a relationship, which occasionally puts Ellen at odds with her friends. Meanwhile, the awkward and goofy Ellen searches for employment, becoming Emma Thompson's assistant and eventually getting (I kid you not) a talk show,

Paige - Less promiscuous than in the past, Paige is still self-involved and struggles to adapt to Ellen's newfound open sexuality. She continues to spar with Spence and miss all the time she and Ellen used to have . . . when Ellen was single,

Spence - Ellen's cousin whose law career is taking off, he is relegated to a supporting position this season and has his biggest moment when he is knocked out by bug spray and wakes up in an alternate universe that teaches him a very important lesson,

Audrey - Still perpetually cheerful and perky and annoying and supportive, Audrey eagerly encourages Ellen to explore her new culture and bears the brunt of many of Paige and Spence's barbs. She and Joe get closer this season,

and Joe - Ellen's good friend and maker of her coffee, he is low-key and often deadpans his reactions to everything around him. He is understated and ironic and never overcomes being a purely supportive character.

Also in the mix as a supporting character is Laurie, Ellen's accountant, a single mother who is a lesbian and is attracted to Ellen. The two form a relationship, though Laurie is relegated to supporting, recurring character this season.

Ellen - Season Five illustrates a decent growth of the actors in the series. Supporting players David Anthony Higgins (Joe) and Clea Lewis (Audrey) hone their sense of comic timing, even though they are most often used for simply delivering the punchlines. Jeremy Piven comes into his own as Spence and it is easy to see how he got Entourage based on his performances in this season. Similarly, Joley Fisher virtually assures her future employment (she went on to 'Til Death, season one reviewed here!) with her portrayal of Paige, who delivers some of the funniest rebuttles with a genius sense of delivery and timing.

But as with the prior seasons, the show is carried on the back of Ellen DeGeneres, who plays Ellen Morgan. DeGeneres is great this season and she seems at ease with the character in a way that makes Ellen Morgan seem perfectly organic. DeGeneres and Lisa Darr (Laurie) have great on-screen chemistry, making them seem like a viable couple. But even with the redirect into the lgb culture, DeGeneres manages to create a universal character who is funny and she pulls off kissing on-screen with the same ease as she carries out the apparent realism of showing up at a wake dressed as a rooster.

All the way around, this season is consistently funny and worthwhile. On DVD, the supreme disappointment continues to be the lack of exploitation of the medium. the season five boxed set is light on bonus features, with only a series of outtakes to reward buyers of the boxed set. It's likely to disappoint fans who wanted more from the series. It's not enough to not recommend the set, though.

For other final seasons of sitcoms, please visit my reviews of:
30 Rock - Season 7
Frasier - Season 11
Happy Endings - Season 3


For other television and movie reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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