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ELLEN
The Complete First Season

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ellen DeGeneres, Holly Fulger, Maggie Wheeler, Arye Gross
Directors: Various
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  A&E
Features:  Pilot Commentary, Bios
Length:  300 Minutes
Release Date:  September 28, 2004

“What kind of best friend am I if I don't stick my nose in her personal life?”

Show **1/2

It's said that the holy grail for any stand-up comic is to land their own network sitcom.  In 1993, the sunny and funny Ellen DeGeneres reached out and grasped that cup herself, joining the likes of Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and many others.

In fact, Ellen started suspiciously like a gender-reversed take on Seinfeld…four central characters with three gals and a guy, taking on bits of everyday life in the form of everything from misadventures at the DMV to class reunions, from sexy home videos to personal ads.  But the show will probably always be remembered for the time when Ellen's sitcom character and Ellen herself came out of the closet nationally. 

That hour long episode came much later, of course, but it was a true climax for the program.  Millions tuned in to watch the special show, but it seemed like once the show turned that controversial corner, audience interest began to dwindle.  In retrospect, it was both a bold move and possibly a miscalculation, in that there was really no way for the show to replicate such a big moment afterwards.  Each episode that subsequently aired seemed…well, somewhat less impressive.

Ellen's career hit a bit of a lull when her show stalled as well…I can remember things got a little ugly when she bitterly accused her network of withdrawing support for the program too soon after overly-hyping the gay revelation episode.  Thankfully, she's enjoying a bit of resurgence with her new show.

I've always liked Ellen DeGeneres as a comedian.  As an actress, she left a little something to be desired (though you could argue she found a niche doing voices for animated features with her wonderful turn in Finding Nemo).  Placed against her co-stars Holly Fulger, Maggie Wheeler and Arye Gross, her lack of experience is a little obvious in this first season two disc set from A&E.  She has charm, warmth and humor, but comes across as a little lost between being herself and being a character.  Much of the comedy came time and time again from her nervous rambling on and on in uncomfortable situations…it was a bit of awkward shtick that started wearing out its welcome fairly rapidly.

But there are many comic highlights amongst the first 13 episodes.  My favorite was “The Anchor”, which humorously chronicles Ellen's misadventures with call waiting.  “The Refrigerator” was also a high point, as Ellen and her roommate Adam (Gross) try to buy a new appliance, only to end up having to move it back and forth across town because of…well, you'll see.

The cast of supporting players is solid (though Maggie Wheeler was noticeably absent after the 7th episode).  The episodes are a little hit and miss, but most are worth a chuckle or two.  The better ones deliver some real belly laughs.  The packaging touts the show as “ground-breaking”, and it's kind of interesting to go back to that first year BEFORE the show actually broke the ground that made it forever memorable. 

Had the show never been more than what's seen here, it might have been delegated to the giant scrap heap of forgotten prime time fodder, but it rolled the dice, took a chance, and earned a place in history because of it, even if it marked a new height that it would never again attain.  This DVD is a reminder of that show in a younger, more eager-to-please form…not always sure of itself, but working its way toward the television event that would come to define it.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Look for Giovanni Ribisi in a small role in the pilot!

Video ***

The shows look pretty good on DVD…the episodes were shot on film instead of video, so the clarity and quality comes through a little stronger.  Coloring is good and natural throughout, and detail level is quite satisfactory.

Audio **

A sitcom won't demand much of an audio track, and here, you get clean clear dialogue, minimal dynamic range, and not much more.  Perfectly suitable, nothing else.

Features *1/2

The extras include a likable commentary track for the pilot episode by co-stars Holly Fulger and Arye Gross and bios for the four principals.

Summary:

Ellen earned a place in television history for its main character and star coming out at the same time before the eager eyes of a nation.  Before that moment, it was pretty much just another sitcom that gave a popular comedian a crack at small screen stardom.  The complete first season chronicles the early going of the show, when Ellen (the character) was still straight and the ideas were much narrower.  It's worth a few good laughs.

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