Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Aging Poorly: Ellen Is More A Sign Of The Times Than An Enduring Series!

The Good: Good performances, Much of the humor, Interesting characters
The Bad: Laugh track, Erratic series
The Basics: Ellen does a fair job of bringing the comedy of Ellen DeGeneres to television, but the five seasons of the show are more erratic and dated than consistent and timeless.

I have long been a fan of the comedy of Ellen DeGeneres. In fact, back when Comedy Central was a new network, playing old clips of stand-up comedians, Ellen DeGeneres’s routines were easily some of my favorites (though Steven Wright amused me quite a bit, too!). So, in my teen years, I was thrilled that DeGeneres managed to get her own sitcom and, despite a complete retuning after the first season, I was pretty much hooked. The show that gave DeGeneres a chance to wow a broader audience was Ellen - though the show began as These Friends Of Mine. Competing with the likes of Seinfeld, Ellen featured Degeneres’s awkward humor in a character tailored to her comedy.

Ellen ran for five seasons and is currently only available as a bundle pack of the DVDs:
Ellen - Season 1
Ellen - Season 2
Ellen - Season 3
Ellen - Season 4
Ellen - Season 5

Ellen follows the life and daily tribulations of Ellen Morgan. After a series of terrible dates and ludicrous schemes, Ellen’s entire social network is upended. Morgan works at a book store which is mismanaged by its owners until Ellen is put in charge. Ellen tries to balance managing the book store with the space used in the store for the coffee shop (which is managed by the sarcastic Canadian, Joe). But travails like the Los Angeles earthquake and the desire to buy her own home lead her to sell the bookstore, even though she stays on as manager, on and off.

Ellen’s personal life revolves initially around dating and crazy schemes (like trying to keep a friend’s family members from seeing a sex tape that the friend made and inadvertently switching the tape out multiple times and playing the offensive tape for them!). But as the seasons go on, Ellen dates, helps friends, gets into work problems, and eventually realizes that her bad luck with men comes largely from the fact that she’s gay and has been fighting that impulse for years. But her revelation of her sexual identity comes at a price when her homophobic boss leads her to quit her job at Buy The Book and her entire life is turned upside-down.

So much of Ellen Degeneres’s comedy is observational humor and sometimes Ellen struggles to incorporate her comedy into the stories. As a result, Ellen Morgan frequently delivers incongruent stories to the main plot or actions of an episode. This characterizes Morgan as wacky, weird, and somewhat out of touch with reality. As a result, Ellen finds herself in the company of people who are equally messed up as she is: her best friend represses his feelings, Joe is deeply sarcastic, Paige is incredibly competitive, Spence is a failure at all his life has been built around and Audrey is so annoying that she is introduced as a woman who Ellen cannot stand to such an extent that she is trying to “dump” her, but feels so bad when Audrey learns how little she is liked that Ellen has to woo her!

Like most sitcoms, Ellen survived for so long because its characters were memorable. The main characters in Ellen are:

Ellen Morgan – A wacky bookstore manager, she lives with Adam and works with Joe. She takes a long string of weird men until she comes out of the closet and finds happiness with a real estate agent who has a daughter. She is continually hounded by her parents, who have some marital difficulties after being together for decades. She revises her goals in life after Buy The Book is nearly destroyed in an earthquake and her cousin Spence ends up on her doorstep. She is friends with Paige, though she has remarkably little in common with her. When she decides to grow up, she devotes herself to buying a house, which forces her to sell the bookstore,

Joe Farrell – A sarcastic Canadian who runs the coffee shop portion of Buy The Book. He dates strange women and is generally a thorn in Ellen’s side, at least, professionally,

Paige Clark – Ellen’s best friend from childhood, she is in the movie industry and tries to help Ellen out when it serves her purposes. She is promiscuous and gets involved with Spence, which complicates Ellen’s life,

Audrey Penney – Arguably the most annoying woman in the world, Ellen loathes her. She and Joe become decent friends; she seems perky, but is actually disturbingly dark and angry,

Spence Kovak – Ellen’s cousin, he appears on her doorstep after the earthquake. At that time, he is running from his family’s expectations that he will become a doctor. Instead, he loaf around Los Angeles and gets involved with Paige and helps Ellen out,

And Adam Green – Ellen’s roommate initially, he is a photographer who experiences increasing levels of success while his dating life stalls. He becomes the object of Audrey’s affections, but has a secret of his own which makes Ellen incredibly uncomfortable.

Despite an erratic overall narrative, Ellen succeeds (when it does) because of the strength of the cast. Ellen DeGeneres makes Ellen Morgan’s divergent stories seem like they are coming from a completely well-realized human being and she binds the disparate phases of the series together well. DeGeneres has great on-screen chemistry with Ayre Gross and Jeremy Piven (Adam and Spence, respectively). David Anthony Higgins slouches wonderfully through the role of Joe and Joley Fisher is consistently wonderful as the often-shallow Paige.

But Ellen is plagued by a lack of consistency and one of the worst laugh tracks in modern television. The show is funny, but Ellen Degeneres’s comedy needs room to breathe and far too often, the show forces the laughs at the inopportune moments or on the wrong beats. The result is a collection of episodes that are more worth henpecking through than getting in one complete collection.

For other television series' that made their debut on ABC, please check out my reviews of:
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season 1
Happy Endings - Season 1
V - Season 2
Mr. Sunshine
Pushing Daisies - Season 1
Boston Legal
The Job
Once & Again - Season 2
Once & Again - Season 1
Sports Night
Spin City - Season 1
NYPD Blue - Season 4
Twin Peaks
V - The Complete Series
Battlestar Galactica - The Complete Epic Series


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

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