In the style of sitcom classics, Ellen DeGeneres' new show offers escapism.
Ellen Goes Retro
Don't look for anything Edge City on "The Ellen Show."
Instead of breaking ground, as Ellen DeGeneres did in her last network-series outing wink, wink this time she's regressing.
"The Ellen Show" is reminiscent of Mary Tyler Moore's old show, or Andy Griffith's, or maybe even "Father Knows Best." It's gentle. And sweet. And likeable.
And her sexuality is treated as it should be in the 21st century almost as an afterthought. "Viewers, meet Ellen. She's bouncy. She's perky. She's funny. And oh, by the way, she's a lesbian."
The tone of the show is set by the opening credits, which appear on passing billboards in that distinctively 1950s style. There's even an image of Ellen in a swimsuit in mid-dive that will remind you of a Coppertone ad or a scene from an Esther Williams movie.
The plots so far are about nothing special, much like the storylines on "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Bachelor Father." That's OK too. In fact it's better than OK. Maybe relevance has lost its ... well ... relevance. With the real world spinning the way it has been in recent weeks, escapism is beginning to look pretty darn good.
In "The Ellen Show," DeGeneres plays Ellen Richmond, a dot-com exec who returns to her small hometown to accept a "Spread Your Wings" award. But while she's there, her Internet business goes belly up, so Ellen decides to stick around and check out life in the slow lane. Everybody in the little town of Clark seems to know she's gay, but nobody cares. They all love her for who she is one of theirs.
Clark is populated by small-town icons in the way that only a sitcom can be. Cloris Leachman, always adored by viewers, plays Ellen's ever-clucking and eccentric mother, Dot. Emily Rutherfurd is her scatterbrained sister, Catherine. Martin Mull plays Ellen's old high school science teacher, and Jim Gaffigan is the goofy guy she went to the prom with. (He brought her home by 9:30 p.m. so she could watch "Bionic Woman.")
There are a few new faces in town, though. One is a motorcycle cop named B. Arthur. Ellen has a lot of fun with that one. His real name is Barney, he says, but that's not a name you want to spread around when you're in small-town law enforcement. Another is Bunny, the zaftig-yet-butch-as-nails P.E. teacher at the high school who has an eye for Ellen. (Bunny is played by Diane Delano, whom you may recall as policewoman Barbara Semanski on "Northern Exposure.")
Ellen's sexuality isn't a central theme, but it's not ignored, either. For example, when her mom shows her to her old room, still decorated with a "Wonder Woman" poster, Ellen asks, "Didn't have a clue, eh Mom?" And there are allusions to DeGeneres' recent public breakup with Anne Heche. In the show's second episode, Ellen is musing about Hugh Grant: "I would have thought that hooker thing would have hurt him. Oh well, the press can be pretty forgiving when it comes to people's sex lives."
DeGeneres decided on the tone of her new show long before last month. But her decision to play it sweet and simple just may signal a far-reaching change in the nature of TV sitcoms for the Naughty Aughties.
As Ellen Richmond might say, "Gosh. That would be swell."
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