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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

The Outing of 'Ellen'? Much Ado About Nada

September 30, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Lesbian, shmesbian.

Should we really give a hoot whether Ellen Morgan, the single neurotic played by Ellen DeGeneres in her ABC sitcom, "Ellen," discloses that she's a lesbian?

Well . . . yes. It's a long season, and we need something besides O.J. Simpson and Clinton vs. Dole to push our buttons.

I'm for Ellen Morgan bursting from the closet if only because Donald Wildmon, big-talking founder of the impotent American Family Assn., says he's against it and may boycott the show's advertisers. That alone puts me on the right side of the issue.

If there really is an issue.

ABC's advance PR blurb on Ellen Morgan this season had her taking a "radical" new path to "self-discovery and fulfillment." Hmm. But the real buzz began with a TV Guide report that she might be coming out as gay this season and that the series might start dropping hints to that effect. Ho-hum. As if a sophisticate like yours truly would care or be titillated.

Thus, believe me on this, it was strictly for professional reasons that I tuned in the season premiere to see if Ellen would be, um, getting it on with her curvy best friend, Paige. Not quite, it turned out. But there were some of those hints, including a joke about Ellen wearing boxer shorts (reportedly the underwear of choice for all lesbians) and a gag that seemed to imply that she would never have a conventional family. Yes, perversity at 8 p.m.

So naturally I also caught last week's Episode 2. Downer. No hints.

By this time, though, DeGeneres herself was in New York, hitting the TV interview circuit with David Letterman, Rosie O'Donnell, Conan O'Brien and Mark McEwen of the CBS program "This Morning." She was doing this ostensibly to promote her new comedy CD, but also had fun with questions about the will-she-or-won't-she lesbian controversy that had sparked a flurry of headlines.

She was coy and playful, telling Letterman and then O'Donnell, for example, that Ellen Morgan did, indeed, have a secret: "I don't know how this leaked out because we were trying to reveal it slowly, change people's opinions, basically." Pause. "We do find out that the character is Lebanese."

Viewers may have noted the clues, she added. "You have seen her eating baba ghannouj and hummus, and she's a big, big fan of Casey Kasem."

"I think that's great," O'Donnell said with a straight face, "because a lot of different networks wouldn't take the risk."

Then DeGeneres delivered an unexpected stunner that probably had Peoria gasping: "Half of Hollywood is Lebanese."

She was just as vague about Ellen Morgan's sexual orientation with McEwen on Friday: "The answer does lie in the CD . . . if you play it backward."

Is the answer that she's . . . left-handed? TV Guide says a future "Ellen" episode takes that self-mocking tack when the character makes a big revelation to her divorcing parents.

Open to question is what "Ellen" and DeGeneres are going for here, whether the intent is to test public response and the extent of the risk in advance of Morgan's actually coming out as gay, or merely to raise expectations and cause a stir that will draw more viewers to "Ellen," a fairly successful series facing tough competition on Wednesday nights.

*

If the latter is the main goal, I know one viewer who has bitten: me.

I had watched the series only rarely since its inception as "These Friends of Mine" in 1994, and tuned in this season only to check out the lesbian angle. My loss, for the first two episodes--with Ellen Morgan selling her bookstore to finance buying a home and then saving the job of a surly employee about to be fired by a new manager whose mounted deer head outraged her--were extremely funny, affirming the quality of the show's writing and DeGeneres as one of TV's most gifted sitcom actresses.

Although the show is publicly mum about it, TV Guide reports that a "coming out" script is already in the works for Ellen Morgan.

And with her boxier clothes and shorter hair, she is looking a bit these days like a leftover from the KGB, as if her taste really does run to baggy undershorts. Is this another clue, albeit a stereotypical one?

The irony here is that "Ellen," in mincing lovers Peter and Barrett, already has two recurring characters whose homosexuality is not open to debate, flaming stereotypes about which gays themselves could justifiably be angry.

This is one funny series, in any case, and one that I will continue watching even if Ellen does turn out to be gay. If she turns out to be Lebanese or left-handed, however, I'm boycotting with Wildmon.

* "Ellen" airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC (Channel 7).

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