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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Power Beyond the Punch Lines

September 24, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Last season, ABC's "Ellen" went from relative obscurity to being a widely discussed, controversial oddity starring prime-time's first openly gay leading lady as prime-time's first clearly gay lead character.

Hardly just funny nonsense with a distinctive punch line, though, "Ellen" opens its fifth season tonight looking very much like a series of seminal importance, television's most significant comedy since CBS raised the curtain on racism and bigotry in "All in the Family" nearly 27 years ago.

As a bonus, the episode is a riot.

But here's the difference. Whereas Archie Bunker surely entertained far more viewers than he influenced, "Ellen" has an opportunity to diminish prejudice on a level not previously seen in TV.

Prejudice against gays. To say nothing of ignorance.

The weighty mantle of importance can buckle even the sturdiest of sitcoms; serious content and humor do not coexist easily, especially in series hoping to attract masses from coast to coast. Ellen DeGeneres and her comedy have acquired this heavy freight by virtue of last season's final three episodes, in which the self-outed DeGeneres indelibly outed her character, Ellen Morgan. And tonight's half-hour sails "Ellen" still further into uncharted waters.

DeGeneres' activist comments in accepting her show's recent Emmy Award for writing hinted that she wasn't going to rest in 1997-98 on the laurels that attracted an estimated audience of 42 million to her "coming out" episode last season.

Tonight finds Ellen's best friend, Paige (Joely Fisher), and her cousin, Spence (Jeremy Piven), trying to set her up with gay women, the latest as stupid as she is beautiful and voluptuous. Paige: "Just give this one a shot, OK? I'm running out of lesbians." Ellen: "Well, you know, we're not reproducing like we used to."

Distinguishing the episode beyond its caustic, biting humor and oft-hilarious one-liners, though, is Ellen's sensitive, tender and candid introspection about her sexuality. A groundbreaking bit of business occurs after she runs into a former boyfriend for whom she appears to have an attraction that confuses her.

Initially, they compare their tastes in babes, declaring in mock frustration: "Women!" Then later, they explore the sexual ambiguity of her feelings about him, doing so in an easy, unmannered, non-gratuitous, effortlessly conversational way that makes their dialogue seem almost conventional.

And that's the point, for the episode (written by Ric Swartzlander and directed by Gil Junger) has the potential to at once sensitize straight viewers to homosexuality and to dull the shock many of them would otherwise feel.

While being funny ("What the hell kind of lesbian are you?" Spence demands after catching Ellen and her old flame necking), the episode and its gay protagonist project an aura of the wholesome mainstream. Perhaps these people aren't extraterrestrials, after all.

Of course, some will see this as extremely dangerous (kids, don't try this at home), even though, quite the opposite, it's entertainment at its healthiest and wisest, as appealing as many of the heterosexual sex jokes pervading other comedies are grating and obnoxious.

Rarely has a sitcom been as smart. Rarely has anything on TV been as smart.

* "Ellen" airs at 9:30 tonight on ABC (Channel 7). The network has rated it TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under the age of 14).

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