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TV REVIEW : Ellen DeGeneres Joins the Sitcom Brigade

March 29, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"Seinfeld," David Letterman and even "Beavis and Butt-head" have mastered the art of being funny about nothing in the 1990s. The premiere of "These Friends of Mine" tries to do so but fails.

The ABC comedy series from David Rosenthal and the once-high-achieving Carol Black and Neal Marlens ("The Wonder Years") plugs Ellen DeGeneres into a "Seinfeld"-like universe that wears its pseudo-hipness like a leisure suit.

DeGeneres is bookstore/cafe manager Ellen Morgan. Holly Fulger is her friend, Holly. Arye Gross is Ellen's platonic roommate, Adam, and Maggie Wheeler is his friend, Anita. The front door is never locked, and everyone drops by. Then they plop down and fret about minutia.

Managing to trivialize even trivia, these habitual schmoozers appear to have hermetically sealed brains. Tonight's topics are Holly's new boyfriend and Ellen's new driver's license photo.

During sex, the boyfriend barks like a dog ("woof, woof"). You know this is hilarious because the studio audience finds it hilarious. Either that or someone has a heavy thumb on the sweetened laughter button.

*

Ellen's bad photo becomes an epic crisis. Many will relate to being photographically disfigured on a driver's license, few to the intensity of her neurosis over it.

A cop stops her and she's embarrassed to show him her license? Get a life. More to the point, get a joke.

DeGeneres is the latest in a long line of stand-up comics to get sitcoms, some of which have turned out to be surprisingly good. Yet initially, at least, she fades into her own ensemble, lacking the quirky breeziness of a Jerry Seinfeld or Garry Shandling (HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show"), for example, or the distinctive presence of a Brett Butler in "Grace Under Fire."

The Black/Marlens/Rosenthal script isn't much help. Among other trifles, you'd criticize the way it turns grunting, casual sex into a gag, but that wouldn't be hip.

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