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Ellen on DVD: Season 1 Season 2 Season 3 Season 4 Coming November 28: Season 5

"Ellen" The Complete Season One DVD Review

Buy Ellen: The Complete Season One from Amazon.com Ellen: Season One (1994)
Show & DVD Details

Regular Directors: Rob Schiller, Andrew D. Weyman

Regular Cast: Ellen DeGeneres (Ellen Morgan), Holly Fulger (Holly), Maggie Wheeler (Anita), Arye Gross (Adam Green)

Recurring Characters: Alice Hirson (Lois), Cristine Rose (Susan), Greg Germann (Rick), David Anthony Higgins (Joe), Steven Gilborn (Harold)

Notable Guest Stars: William Bumiller (Roger Koenig, "Pilot"), Giovanni Ribisi (Cashier, "Pilot"), Kurt Fuller (Dr. Collins, "The Refrigerator"), Clea Lewis (Audrey, "The Anchor"), Elinor Donahue (Delores, "The Tape"), Brian McNamara (Jim, "The Tape"), Molly Shannon (Woman, "The Houseguest"), Harland Williams (Ticket Taker, "The Houseguest"), Jill Talley (Infomerical Woman, "The Houseguest")

Running Time: 299 Minutes (13 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: September 28, 2004
Season 1 Airdates: March 29, 1994 - August 30, 1994 (2 episodes aired May '96)
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs; Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Two individual slim-line DVD cases with cardboard slipcover

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By Aaron Wallace

Originally titled "These Friends Of Mine" until it was renamed in its second season, "Ellen" can, in many ways, be called "Seinfeld" without the fan base.
Though no actual stand-up comedy sessions are shown, the entire series feels as though it is a stand-up act brought to life, often making the daily realities of life a target for humor.

Though history may remember "Ellen" as the first show to star an openly gay character towards the end of its run, the first season aired as a sitcom like any other before it was eclipsed by controversy and eventually cancelled. Season one shows a time before Ellen had "come out" on either her show or in real life. Here, the focus is the friendship of four independent city dwellers, a dynamic that would strengthen as the season progressed, especially when there were only three friends instead of four. (It should be noted that "Ellen" is not to be confused with "The Ellen Show" or "Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show", two more recent series that feature the famed comedian).

Ellen DeGeneres plays Ellen Morgan, a slightly neurotic bookstore manager in the city. Though she's well-intentioned, her jittery nerves and big mouth often get her into a lot of trouble with coworkers, family, and friends. Ellen shines as the star of the show and casts a shadow over the rest of the cast, a problem which became evident after only a few episodes.

Arye Gross stars as Adam Green, Ellen's platonic male roommate. Somewhat stereotypical, his character is focused on trying to find a date for the week and often analyzes his personality and appearance. As the balance to Ellen's zany antics, Adam serves as the straight man (no pun intended) of the series and gets quite a bit more screen time than his two female counterparts. He is the only member of the supporting cast to remain with the show in season two.

Anita, portrayed by Maggie Wheeler, played a very small role in the series to be one of its four stars. In fact, it's a bit difficult to see why she is considered a regular cast member when she was let go after the first seven episodes and David Anthony Higgins, who appeared in every episode after she left, was not considered part of the regular cast until the next season. In the little screen time that she does have, Wheeler's character is rather bland and contributes little, if anything, to the show. Given her outstanding performance as Janice on Friends, which she joined after leaving "Ellen", it's likely that it was simply the format of this show or the nature of the character that was not conducive to Wheeler's acting, rather than anything to do with her abilities.

"Ellen"'s title screen.

Holly Fulger plays a character of the same first name, Ellen's friend, Holly. Her character, often wrapped up in dating troubles, lacks any strong attributes and often seems a bit awkward on screen. Like Anita, Holly is usually relegated to a supporting role. Though she did stick around for all of the first season, she did not return to the show in season two.

At Ellen's request, the show would be retooled and largely recast at the beginning of its second season, but it did very well in this, its first run. In fact, according to Nielson ratings, the first season was the highest-rated of the entire series (though I do feel the quality improved as it progressed). The show wastes no time in establishing itself, and does so with much hilarity.

Though produced by Touchstone Television and distributed by Buena Vista International (much like Home Improvement and Boy Meets World), the series is curiously presented on DVD by A&E Home Video, a significant portion of which is in fact owned by Buena Vista. Perhaps sensitivity towards the show's eventual controversy is cause for its distribution by a typically "artsier" studio.

A&E presents the first season in its production order, which differs drastically from the order in which it was aired. In all, the order of production makes more sense, though it highlights the absence of Maggie Wheeler starting with the eighth episode and the absence of Ellen's famed Buy The Book store until that same episode. Because it began as a mid-season replacement on ABC, the first season contains only thirteen episodes, despite the fact that the series ran from March until the summer, then went on hiatus, and then returned to conclude in August, followed by the launch of season two in September.

After years of little syndication, the first season has finally made its way to DVD in its entirety (including two first-season episodes that were not seen until two years later) with an overall sound presentation that is sure to please.

A star () denotes my five favorite episodes from the season.

Disc 1 (Volume 1)

1. Pilot (23:19) (Originally aired March 29, 1994)
While the pilot episode doesn't offer much in the way of establishing storylines or setting,
it does offer a prime example of the show's hilarity. When Ellen's indecision on a proper pose for her driver's license photo leads to a terrible snapshot, she takes drastic measures to correct it.

2. The Promotion (23:17) (Originally aired April 20, 1994)
Ellen's boss, Susan, is looking for a new manager and Ellen feels she's just the person for the job. On her mother's advice, she brings a gift to her Susan's house, but her big mouth gets her in trouble before she can snag the new job.

3. The Refrigerator (23:30) (Originally aired August 9, 1994)
Ellen and Adam need a new refrigerator for their apartment, but when Adam goes against Ellen's advice and uses Anita's employee discount, they end up in more trouble than they bargained for. Meanwhile, Adam receives more lavish treatment than he needs after a bump-up brings him to an unsavory doctor.

4. The Mugging (23:22) (Originally aired May 21, 1996)
Adam's new girlfriend is out of his league, so when he sees her being mugged and takes no action, he needs Ellen to come forward as a witness in his place so as not to seem cowardly. Though originally aired at the end of the third season (as the last unseen episode of that season, but it was not intended as a season finale), this episode was produced during the first season and features the original cast.

5. The Anchor (23:07) (Originally aired March 30, 1994)
Adam gets call waiting for the apartment (the novelty of which shows the first season's age). It's fun at first until a confused Ellen accidentally insults her annoying friend, Audrey (played by Clea Lewis, who would later reprise this role, albeit differently characterized, and become a regular on the show), and must go out of her way for forgiveness. Meanwhile, Holly misleads her boyfriend by exaggerating her chest size. Also, Ellen's neighbor, Rick, takes advantage of an offer to use her shower.

6. The Class Reunion (22:49) (Originally aired April 13, 1994)
It's Ellen and Holly's fifteen year high school reunion and Adam and Anita tag along for the ride. While Anita steals Holly's thunder, Ellen and Adam weave a series of lies about their careers and marital status, complicating Ellen's run-in with her high school crush and Adam's attempts at swaying a realtor to give him an apartment.

Disc 2 (Volume 2)

7. The Tape (22:40) (Originally aired May 14, 1996)
When Anita's parents come to stay with her, she has to hide a naughty video tape she made with her boyfriend. She keeps the tape at Ellen's place for safe keeping, but when Adam mistakes it for another tape to make copies, the group is led on a rat race to find who has which tape. Meanwhile, Ellen fears that her date called her while he was using the restroom. This was Maggie Wheeler's biggest role in an episode and it was also the last episode in which she was filmed. In the first of Ellen's reformatting measures, Wheeler was let go before any more episodes were filmed. Like "The Mugging," this was produced for the first season but did not air until the third season.

8. The Boyfriend Stealer (23:14) (Originally aired August 30, 1994)
Holly's new boyfriend makes Ellen uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Ellen has trouble getting along with her new employee, Joe the coffee guy. Though considered to be only a recurring character in the first season, Joe would quickly become a fan favorite and join the regular cast in season two. This episode originally aired as the season finale.

9. The Soft Touch (23:21) (Originally aired August 23, 1994)
Ellen's in the market for a new car, but when she gets the salesman fired, she tries to make up for it by biting off more than she can chew, all the while dealing with her parents' newfound financial woes.

10. A Kiss Is Still A Kiss (23:25) (Originally aired April 6, 1994)
After answering personal ads, Ellen, Adam, and Holly run into some unexpected problems with their better-than-expected dates.

11. The Go-Between (22:46) (Originally aired May 4, 1994)
When Ellen's boss is grumpy at work because her date to a wedding backed out, Ellen decides to set her up with Adam. Also, Ellen and Holly can't get any service at a restaurant.

12. The Hand That Robs The Cradle (23:20) (Originally aired April 27, 1994)
When Ellen finds out that her new date is significantly younger than she is, she begins to feel self-conscious about her age. In an attempt to appear young, she and Holly imitate the fashions and slang they view as "hip," with disastrous consequences.

13. The Houseguest (23:11) (Originally aired May 24, 1994)
Ellen convinces her favorite cousin to come spend the week with her in the city. When everything goes wrong, though, Ellen frets and her cousin takes off with a killer-turned-author from Buy The Book. Ellen and the gang must take off to a biker bar to find her cousin.

VIDEO AND AUDIO

Overall, the video quality on first season set is clean and clear, with only the slightest bit of grain. Considering that the video itself is now eleven years old, it's certainly not a poor presentation. The series was filmed and aired in the 1.33:1 fullscreen aspect ratio and is presented as such here.

From the catchy first-season theme song (which features an Ellen title card rather than These Friends Of Mine) to each punchline and laugh, the sound is crisp, clear, and well-mixed. At no time was I unclear on anything that had been said or in need of adjusting the volume. The Dolby Digital stereo track makes excellent use of both speakers.

Bonus Features Menu Biographies Menu The Biography for star Ellen DeGeneres

BONUS FEATURES

The most substantial bonus feature offered on this set is an audio commentary by Arye Gross and Holly Fulger on "Pilot." While one might have hoped for two commentary tracks on such a small season set, this one is fun and informative.
The focus is on concepts in the first season, rather than specifics, and they tend to get off-topic as they converse. Still, their remarks are insightful and easy to listen to. Though they sound as if they legitimately enjoyed making the show and now share a close friendship, a certain awkwardness of a commentary by two cast members who were let go before the show would end does not go unnoticed. Perhaps most interesting is their comments on the influences of "Seinfeld" that I had immediately noticed upon revisiting the first season, as well as the careful niceties used in discussing Maggie Wheeler's departure from the show. Fans who were hoping for commentary by Ellen herself may be disappointed by the first season set, but should not give up hope yet. It is more likely that this will come in future season sets after the show's format had been revamped. The only other bonus feature is a brief television-oriented biography and miniature filmography for each of the four stars. Both bonus features are on the first disc.

Ellen: The Complete Season One - Main MenuA look at the set's packaging.

MENUS, DESIGN, and PACKAGING

An animated montage of pictures from the show introduces the main menu screen, a smiling picture of Ellen atop a yellow background with three menu choices (only two on the second disc, as there are no bonus features there), all set to the show's theme song. The first two options allow you to "Play All" or select particular episodes. Choosing the latter takes you to two pages in which each episode is named along with a brief description and a small snapshot, making for easy identification. On Disc 1, the third option brings up the bonus features beside another smiling picture of the star.

The set features two slim-line DVD cases, each about as thin as a slim CD jewel case,
housed together inside a cardboard slipcover. The cases share the box's cover art, the only differences being the critic quotes and volume label (Season 1 Volume 1, etc.). Curiously, the release button in the center of the second slim case is of a different variety than that in the first.

The backsides of the slim cases provide disc specifications and information on episodes, with a title, description, and snapshot for each. The back of the cardboard slipcover features two pictures and a series description that, like the show itself, primarily concerns itself only with the star for which the show is named. This type of packaging is becoming increasingly common with TV-on-DVD releases and it's likely as due to convenience for rental locations as it is to convenience for retail consumers. While it may not dazzle in quite the same way as the typical digipak display, it does ease the disc retrieval process.

Each disc features an orange-tinted photo collage in the background with purple lettering across it. The discs are also labeled by volume and list the episodes contained on it. Each episode is divided by four or five chapters. There is no on-screen scene index for these chapters, but it does make for easy access. One insert is included in the set, a four page, double-sided flyer for A&E's TV-on-DVD library, including advertisements for upcoming releases and an A-Z listing.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though future years would bring about a very different show that sought to leave a very different legacy, the first season of Ellen is charming and a joy to watch. While it's not without its flaws, every episode is hilarious. It is my opinion that Ellen DeGeneres is among the very funniest people in the country and in this series, it shows.

A&E presents this Buena Vista series quite satisfactorily, overall. One might have hoped for more than one commentary, but the track that is offered is informative and enjoyable. The video and audio succeed in pleasing. By arranging the thirteen first year episodes in their proper order, A&E presents the series in a logical fashion for the very first time. "Ellen": The Complete Season One earns a recommendation for any fan of sitcoms or comedy in general.

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Ellen on DVD: Season 1 Season 2 Season 3 Season 4 Coming November 28: Season 5

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Reviewed January 7, 2005 / Posted January 24, 2005