After the media firestorm surrounding her coming out of the closet died
down — and, too, the sitcom that got dragged into the frequently unfunny
fray as a result — Ellen DeGeneres took some time off before
resurfacing in another hotly anticipated, eponymous small screen
vehicle in 2001. Perhaps the timing wasn’t right then for its success (it was axed two-thirds of the way into its debut run) but in
retrospect The Ellen Show, collected here over 18 half-hour episodes, serves as a warm and winning showcase of its star’s talents.
Co-created by Mitchell Hurwitz (The Golden Girls, Arrested Development) and Carol Leifer (Seinfeld), the show centers around Ellen Richmond, a dotcom executive who returnsto her small hometown to receive an honorary achievement award and ends up staying when her company suddenly goes under. Moving back in with her mother Dot (a perfectly batty Cloris Leachman) and younger sister Catherine (Emily Rutherfurd), Ellen accepts a job offer from he ex-high school teacher and mentor, Mr. Munn (Martin Mull), and becomes a guidance counselor at her old school, where she works alongside her erstwhile senior prom date, the genial Rusty (Jim Gaffigan). Hers is no closeted existence, though; Ellen is openly gay if not currently in the market for companionship (much to the chagrin of the school’s gym teacher). While there are clever tweaks here and there about her sexuality (Wonder Woman, Billie Jean King and Charlie’s Angels posters dot her untouched adolescent bedroom walls), the bulk of the show is about the clash of culture and pace that occurs when Ellen unplugs from her Los Angeles rat race and rediscovers her small-town roots.
Given the pleasant comedic density on display in much of Leifer and Hurwitz’s other work, it’s no surprise that The Ellen Show gets mileage out of a variety of comic devices, from recurrent touchstone jokes and upscale literary references (Henry David Thoreau’s Walden anchors the second episode, in which Ellen obsesses over “deep” reflection) to oblique throwaway lines and smile-inducing puns. Its chief attribute, though, is DeGeneres’ sunny, affable personality. Unplugged from any politicized agenda, on the right or the left, you’releft simply with an innately likeable person with crack comic timing, and The Ellen Show captures its subject’s inimitably canted flight-of-fancy humor with grace and style. Spread out over three discs in two slimline cases that are in turn stored in a sturdy cardboard slipcase, The Ellen Show: The Complete Series is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English stereo track. There are unfortunately no sit-down interviews with either DeGeneres or the behind-the-camera talent, or any other supplemental extras. That’s a shame, since this series deserves a more robust revival. B+ (Show) C- (Disc)