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

"Ellen" The Complete Season Four DVD Review

Buy Ellen: The Complete Season Four from Amazon.com Ellen: Season Four (1996-97)
Show & DVD Details

Regular Director: Gil Junger

Cast: Ellen DeGeneres (Ellen Morgan), Joely Fisher (Paige Clark), David Anthony Higgins (Joe Farrell), Clea Lewis (Audrey Penney), Jeremy Piven (Spence Kovak)

Recurring Characters: Alice Hirson (Lois), Steven Gilborn (Harold), Patrick Bristo (Peter), Jake Plotnick (Barrett), Bruce Campbell (Ed Billik), Aaron Neville (Himself), Oprah Winfrey (Therapist), Laura Dern (Susan), The Captain & Tennille (Themselves), Patrick Harrigan (Waiter), Nancy Lenehan (Margaret)

Notable Guest Stars: John Tesh (Himself), Eddie Fisher (Himself), Harriet Sansom Harris (Claire), Wolfgang Puck (Himself), Anne Rice (Herself), DEVO (Themselves), Harvey Korman (The Therapist), Trisha Yearwood (Herself), Debra Mooney (Barbara), ZZ Top (Themselves), Joe Flaherty (Perry), Jennifer Holiday (Herself), Jann Arden (Herself), Bob Saget (Himself), Florence Henderson (Madeline), Sheryl Crow (Herself), Bonnie Raitt (Herself), David Crosby (Himself), Queen Latifah (Herself), Brian Setzer (Himself), Wayne Newton (Doctor), Drew Carey (Himself), Eileen Heckart (Grammy), Brett Butler (Grace Kelly), Melissa Etheridge (Herself), Billy Bob Thornton (Grocer), Jenny Shimizu (Woman in Aisle), Dwight Yoakam (Bag Boy), Demi Moore (Sample Lady), k.d. lang (Janine), Gina Gershon (The Cashier), Leisha Hailey (Coffee House Woman), Joan Jett (Herself), Dayton Callie (Father of the Gay Son), Laraine Newman (Over-Supportive Parent), Chastity Bono (The Moderator), The Bee Gees (Themselves)

Running Time: 575 Minutes (25 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (English)
DVD Release Date: September 26, 2006 / Subtitles: None
Season 4 Airdates: September 18, 1996 - May 14, 1997
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs; Suggested Retail Price: $49.95
Three individual slim-line DVD cases with cardboard slipcover

Buy from Amazon.com

Page 1: Show Discussion, Disc 1, and Disc 2
Page 2: Disc 3, Video/Audio, Bonus Features, Menus & Packaging, and Closing Thoughts

By Aaron Wallace

A prime-time sitcom planted far outside the Top 10 in ratings is an unlikely candidate for a series to make television history. However, that's exactly what the Touchstone comedy "Ellen" did in its fourth season. After three seasons that were popular enough to warrant renewal
but not big enough a hit to rival "Seinfeld", "Home Improvement" or "Friends", ABC and the people behind "Ellen" decided to boldly go where no TV show had gone before.

Near the end of the fourth season, main character Ellen Morgan (played by Ellen DeGeneres) announces that she is gay. That made her the first primary character of a prime-time series to "come out" on-screen and "Ellen" the first show to star an openly gay character. With two words -- "I'm gay" (mistakenly spoken into an intercom at an airport terminal) -- "Ellen" brought the issue of homosexuality to the forefront of American discourse. The issue remains controversial today, but its upfront appearance on network TV in 1997, at a time when shows like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Will & Grace" would have been unlikely to make it to the air, was unusual to say the least. Though ratings for the season were overall tepid, an estimated 36 million viewers tuned in for the two-part "Puppy Episode" that contained Ellen's coming out (that's 35% of American homes in 1997).

Unsurprisingly, the move ignited a firestorm of controversy. Conservative and religious groups and viewers objected and ratings began to slide even further. Making the situation all the more awkward, "Ellen" was produced and aired by the Walt Disney Company, proud of its reputation as family-friendly. Though it rarely if ever ventured outside of TV-PG material, every episode from that point on bore a parental advisory warning at its start. Criticism continued, however, not only from those objecting on grounds of morality, but also from fans and reviews decrying a political bend and the "too gay" turn in its subject matter. The show returned in the fall for its fifth season, which would become its last.

Ellen's therapist falls asleep on her. Believe it or not, this isn't even the Christmas episode... just one of Ellen's haunting dreams.

Whether personal politics leave you agitated by or sympathetic to this move in the culture war, the decision for Ellen Morgan to come out makes little sense to the series and is to its detriment. The very first line of the Season Four premiere hints at the revelation to come and the rest of the season is filled with similar suggestions (some of them extremely clever). Early on, most of them involve a breaking of the fourth wall, so to speak; the hints reference real-life tabloid speculation. Later on, the character herself begins to undergo a transformation. She spends the season going from one therapist to another, trying to determine the cause of her neuroticism and unhappiness, which turns out to be her suppressed homosexuality.

This sudden focus on Ellen's sexuality seems just that: sudden. As if merely an afterthought, the character that existed for three seasons is forgotten so that a new one is able to unfold. Ellen Morgan's heterosexuality had not been presented as merely circumstantial or inconsequential during the first three years; it was integral to her persona. Nothing in Seasons 1-3 implies that the fourth season bombshell is to come. Of course, DeGeneres had come out to the nation shortly prior to her character's announcement. Her personal life is one matter; the life of her character is another entirely. While Ellen Morgan was partially based on her real-life creator, DeGeneres was not playing herself in the show. Therefore, her own lesbianism is irrelevant to the sexuality of her character and there is no justification for the drastic alteration. Indeed, were an outsider to view the complete series in sequence, unaware of the DeGeneres context, they would probably feel more confused than the character supposedly did in the fourth season.

To add insult to injury, not only does its protagonist change, but the tone and focus of the series is tailored to complement the coming out as well. Beginning with "The Puppy Episode," the series becomes one prolonged public service announcement, featuring one tolerance-themed "very special episode" after another. To sustain this tone, Ellen suddenly becomes bold and aggressive, traits that are certainly out of character. Additionally, the series' constant stream of notable guest stars begins to parade a "Who's Who" of celebrity lesbians. Fortunately for Season Four viewers, the change comes towards the end and most significantly impacts the fifth and final season. The last four installments in Season Four, however, are affected.

The cast of "Ellen" prepares for the controversy to come. Ellen's parents seem too happy to be announcing their divorce.

The supporting cast takes on a more modest role in order to give Ellen and her "self-discovery" the spotlight, but Paige (Joely Fisher), Spence (Jeremy Piven), Joe (David Anthony Higgins), and Audrey (Clea Lewis) are all back to amuse and delight. Ellen's parents, Harold (Steven Gilborn) and Lois (Alice Hirson), seek a divorce and see an increase in screen time as a result.
The same is true for the previously-recurring same-sex couple Peter (Patrick Bristo) and Barrett (Jake Plotnick), who frequently linger in the background as if to say "see, a gay character isn't all that new to this show." The fourth season also sees one notable addition to the supporting cast when Ellen decides to sell Buy the Book, staying on staff but now answering to a new manager, Ed (Bruce Campbell), whose extremely conservative lifestyle clashes with her budding political awareness.

The unsettling change in direction aside, the bulk of Season Four is actually very funny and entertaining. Even when obstructed by dramatics, the cast works very well together as a brilliant comic ensemble and DeGeneres herself remains as funny as ever. The third season of "Ellen" was its strongest and much of its charisma spills over into the fourth. A few of the storylines are certainly generic but the show's willingness to go over-the-top and its ability to remain on point in doing so make many of them memorable. For the most part, the show is exceedingly fresh with only the political asides feeling tired. The ever-changing opening titles gag returns with a little less variety but still succeeds as a very clever device. The newfound self-referentiality that fills the fourth season thickens the rich brand of humor, even if its mostly aimed at an issue that ultimately brings the show down. In fact, there's a lot going for "Ellen" near the end of its run, making it all the more tragic that the immense comedic potential is squandered for the sake of an agenda.

"Ellen" was produced by Touchstone Television, filmed at least in part inside the Disney studios, and originally aired on the ABC network. Despite all that, its DVDs are distributed by A&E Home Entertainment (owned in part by Disney) rather than Buena Vista itself, which normally handles Touchstone's television fare. A&E offers The Complete Season Four in chronological broadcast order, which is the most sensible presentation for this particular lot of episodes.

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

Ellen looks mighty Lucy-like in recreating her parents' wedding. Paige and Peter celebrate Halloween, eagerly anticipating the arrival of Anne Rice. Ellen and Spence hunt for Lois at a Trisha Yearwood concert.

Disc 1 (Volume 1)

1. Give Me Equity or Give Me Death (22:38) (Originally aired September 18, 1996)
Ellen is approached by proprietors looking to buy Buy the Book.
Even though she'd stay on as manager, she's reluctant to sell until the idea of home ownership makes their proposal more appealing. Wanting the best deal she can get, she solicits the help of sometimes-lawyer Spence.

2. A Deer Head For Joe (22:22) (Originally aired September 25, 1996)
Ellen's new boss Ed insists on showcasing his hunting triumphs in Buy the Book. Ever a champion for animal rights, Ellen insists that the display come down. When Ed fires Joe, she devises a plan to right two wrongs.

3. Splitsville, Man (22:22) (Originally aired October 2, 1996)
Ellen learns that her parents plan to divorce and is anything but reposed, staging an upset at her father's retirement party.

4. The Parent Trap (22:22) (Originally aired October 16, 1996)
In an attempt to reunite her parents, Ellen convinces her friends to help her in recreating the Morgans' Cuban honeymoon in Los Angeles.

5. Looking Out For Number One (22:22) (Originally aired October 23, 1996)
Ellen catches her therapist in an embarrassing act and, taking her own advice, confronts her about it.

6. The Bubble Gum Incident (23:01) (Originally aired October 30, 1996)
At a summer camp reunion, Paige is set on revenge against the girl who put gum in her hair 25 years ago. The only problem is that unbeknownst to Paige, that girl is Ellen.

7. Harold and Ellen (22:22) (Originally aired November 6, 1996)
Still struggling to cope with her parents' divorce, Ellen reexamines her relationship with her father. The two make an effort to spend more time together but Ellen's eagerness begins to annoy Harold.

8. Not So Great Expectations (22:22) (Originally aired November 13, 1996)
Lois begins to date but Ellen is suspicious of her new beau.

9. The Pregnancy Test (22:22) (Originally aired November 20, 1996)
Paige fears she is pregnant and asks Ellen and Audrey to take a test along with her for support. One of the three tests come back positive... but whose is it?

Ellen faces off against Ed. No one rings in holiday humbugs or hoorays like Joe and Audrey, respectively. Tonight on "When Bradys Go Bad"...

Disc 2 (Volume 2)

10. Kiss My Bum (22:22) (Originally aired November 27, 1996)
Ellen invites a new friend to her apartment for Thanksgiving dinner, not knowing that he is homeless until she's already put her foot in her mouth.

11. Bowl, Baby, Bowl (22:22) (Originally aired December 4, 1996)
The Buy the Book gang go out for an evening of bowling. When Ellen beats Ed, he seeks revenge in the workplace and the rivalry between the two soars to new levels.

12. Fleas Navidad (22:19) (Originally aired December 18, 1996)
Ellen cancels her Christmas vacation plans with Paige to stay home and look after a stray dog she finds.

13. Alone Again... Naturally (22:22) (Originally aired January 8, 1997)
Ellen vows to find comfort in solitude but finds that the general public is unwilling to leave her be.

14. Joe's Kept Secret (22:22) (Originally aired January 15, 1997)
Joe commits himself to a new -- and older -- girlfriend (Florence Henderson), who keeps him at bay with financial bribery.

15. Makin' Whoopie (20:57) (Originally aired January 22, 1997)
Ellen is three sheets to the wind when she drops by a party filled with medical doctors and scholars, embarrassing herself and Spence, who is hoping for a promotion.

16. Ellen Unplugged (22:22) (Originally aired February 5, 1997)
Ellen and her friends attend a Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp, where they try their hands at a live performance. It doesn't take them long to remember why they work in a bookstore rather than a night club, but Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville, and David Crosby stop by to give them some pointers.

17. Ellen's Deaf Comedy Jam (22:21) (Originally aired February 12, 1997)
Audrey falls for a deaf man and some misinterpretation on Ellen's part leads to a feud between the two.

Ellen has an "Unchained Melody" moment. Ellen has one too many at Spence's big event.

Continue to Page 2 >>

Buy Ellen: Season Four from Amazon.com

Page 1: Show Discussion, Disc 1, and Disc 2
Page 2: Disc 3, Video/Audio, Bonus Features, Menus & Packaging, and Closing Thoughts

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

Reviewed October 27, 2006.