Bookstore worker deals with her quirky friends, her family and the problems of daily life.
109 episodes of 22 minute duration. 1994 - 1998
It can be argued that Ellen DeGeneres did for homosexual characters on American television, what Bill Cosby's role on the drama I Spy' did for African-Americans-make them more acceptable to viewers. Not only did her character Ellen Morgan come out as a lesbian, so did DeGeneres herself. For over a year, she fought both conservative groups and her own network over the show's direction. But viewers had the last say, and 'Ellen' went off the air one year after her "coming out" party.
Like many US sitcom stars of the 1990's, Louisiana-born DeGeneres found initial fame as a stand-up comic, playing at comedy clubs across the country. She also became the first female comic ever invited to take a seat next to Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show", which in those days mean instant success. The "Tonight Show" gig and cable TV appearances led to roles in the short-lived sitcoms "Duet" and its spin-off "Open House". Another role-this one on a 1992 comedy called "Laurie Hill"-caught the eye of the show's producers, who offered to created a show based on DeGeneres' observational humor.
ABC aired the programme, initially titled "These Friends of Mine", as a mid-season replacement in early 1994. DeGeneres played Ellen Morgan, a single woman in her early 30's who managed a bookstore in Los Angeles and got involved in her friends' personal lives. (The initial cast included Arye Gross, Holly Fulger, and Maggie Wheeler). "These Friends of Mine" got off to a strong start; it landed in the top ten almost immediately. And while critics praised DeGeneres' performance, many didn't think much of the show, liking it to a copy of NBC's successful "Seinfeld".
DeGeneres was not happy with the initial shows and changes were made for the 1994-95 season. Out went the title "These Friends of Mine" and in came the star's name: "Ellen". The original cast was eventually written out and several new characters were added, including bookstore employee Joe (David Anthony Higgins), flighty best friend Page (Joely Fisher), and child-like, slightly off-center Audrey (Clea Lewis). The third season brought in "Larry Sanders" refugee Jeremy Piven as Ellen's cousin Spence; all four would stay for the run of the series.
Although the ratings were good, DeGeneres was not happy about ABC's demands to have her date more men on the show-something she didn't want to do. By the third season, Ellen was rarely dating but the co-stars became more prominent as the producers and writers looked for new plot devices. Critics were unhappy; they felt "Ellen" lacked direction. And writers who interviewed DeGeneres found her willing to discuss just about everything except her personal life. That led tabloids to try and "out" the sitcom star. By this time in Hollywood's gay community, DeGeneres' sexual orientation was well-known, and she began to have a following among lesbian fans. Ironically, producers wanted to add a gay female character to the show; DeGeneres rejected the idea.
By 1996, "Ellen" began to fall out of the top-20. ABC-which had dropped to third place in the ratings-renewed the show, but demanded that the title character got involved with someone or something. (One ABC executive thought the solution to the show's problems was to have Ellen adopt a puppy!)
Before the new season began, DeGeneres asked her writers and producers whether Ellen Morgan should come out as a lesbian; they liked the idea. But ABC had to approve the new storyline, as did the network's new owner, The Walt Disney Company. Disney executives feared conservative backlash, and wanted to see some scripts before giving final approval. Initially, the plan was to introduce the lesbian storyline in early 1997, and DeGeneres began going on talk shows in the fall of '96 to hint about the show's upcoming direction. Some of the early shows of the new season also had not-so-subtle hints about Ellen (and "Ellen's) future plot.
But "TV Guide" and the Hollywood trade papers learned about the planned gay storyline. ABC and Disney executives were flooded with pro-lesbian letters from gay rights groups while conservative and religious organizations urged the network to cancel the idea. Instead, ABC approved a script that would air as one of the final episodes of the season. The one-hour show, which aired in April 1997, was known as "The Puppy Episode", in honor of the ABC executive's order about DeGeneres adopting a dog.
DeGeneres soon drew even more attention to the episode, when she came out in an interview that made the cover of "Time" magazine just before the broadcast; she also appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with her then-partner, actress Anne Heche, on the day the "Ellen" episode aired. That night, more than 35 million Americans watched Ellen (and "Ellen") come out, with help from guest stars Laura Dern, Oprah Winfrey, Billy Bob Thornton and Melissa Etheridge.
Critics loved "The Puppy Episode"; DeGeneres later won an Emmy as a co-writer of the show. But several sponsors refused to place their ads on the "Ellen" episode, and a few ABC affiliates refused to air it. Initially, DeGeneres had planned to end the show and move on. But ABC desperately needed hit series; the revived ratings for "Ellen" led the network to offer DeGeneres more money if she would return for another season. She agreed, and the focus now turned to how her character would evolve-and whether she would have a girlfriend in the fall of 1997. During the summer break, DeGeneres received many letters from gays and lesbians who said "The Puppy Episode" helped them come out to family and friends, and was especially moved by the letters from gay teenagers who had thought of suicide before watching the show.
Those letters made DeGeneres more determined to make "Ellen" more gay oriented. As Ellen moved into the show's forefront, the supporting cast found themselves with smaller roles; co-star Jeremy Piven likened his return to the "Ellen" set as being "like a kid whose parents dropped him off at the wrong summer camp".
The new direction also had DeGeneres at odds with ABC executives, in public feuds over how the lesbian storyline should be handled. During the show's final season, Ellen met and fell in love with mortgage broker Laurie Manning (Lisa Darr), who also had a young daughter. ABC moved the show to a later timeslot, and used the television industry's then-new rating system to warn viewers of the content. Even thought there was little or no physical contact between the characters, some of the Ellen-Laurie episodes were given the TV-14 rating-not appropriate for kids under 14, and a designation usually reserved for ABC's adult police drama "NYPD Blue". The "Ellen" episodes also warned the show dealt with adult themes.
Again, DeGeneres publicly fought with network executives over the warnings and ratings. As the fights dragged on, viewers began tuning out "Ellen" while critics were divided over the quality of the post-coming out shows. The controversy ended when ABC announced it would not renew "Ellen". (A one-hour "tribute" special aired as the series finale in May 1998; two episodes that had not yet aired were shown during the summer.)
Some television observers thought the "Ellen" experience would steer network executives away from gay-themed shows. That didn't happen. Just months after "Ellen's" cancellation, NBC premiered "Will & Grace"-a sitcom about a gay man and a straight woman who were the best of friends. It eventually became one of the network's biggest hits. And the pay cable network Showtime found modest success with the US version of the British drama "Queer as Folk". But shows with gay leading characters such as "Normal, Ohio" and "Some of My Best Friends" failed to catch on with viewers.
DeGeneres returned to series television in the fall of 2001 with "The Ellen Show" on CBS. She again played a lesbian, this time a failed dot.com executive who moved back home to her small town. This time around, the lesbian character was secondary to DeGeneres' interaction with family and friends. It wasn't a bad show, but viewers didn't watch and the show was canceled in 2002. DeGeneres has gone back to stand-up comedy; appeared on movies and television; she was one of the voices in the hit animated film "Finding Nemo". She will also launch her own daily syndicated talk show this fall.
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