Now that Ellen is out, the “in” jokes are funnier than ever. Ellen DeGeneres returns to primetime television four years after her groundbreaking show and much-hyped “gay outing” on ABC. Now that the fuss has died down, the comedian gets a chance to play for laughs and not politics. “The Ellen Show,” the best and brightest of the new sitcoms, is an ensemble in the grand tradition of classic TV, thanks to a cast well-schooled in comedy. To ensure a high-profile debut, CBS premieres the series on a special day and time, Monday, Sept. 17, at 9:30 p.m., before it moves to its regular timeslot Fridays at 8 starting Sept. 28.
Paired with fellow newcomer “Danny” and up against the modest competition of “Providence,” “The Mole 2” and “Dark Angel,” “The Ellen Show” adds allure to a usually dull Friday landscape. Compared to the fanfare surrounding DeGeneres’ personal life, the show is rather subdued. It’s a good 10 minutes before the gay issue even comes up, and even then it’s handled matter-of-factly. No big stunt guest stars. No controversy.
Now that DeGeneres has paved the way for shows like “Will & Grace,” this show appears to savor the victory gracefully.
DeGeneres stars as Ellen Richmond, a dot-com exec who returns to her hometown of Clark to be honored for her business success. But on the eve of the big celebration, Ellen learns that her fourth Web business in two years is also her last. Without a job and a clear plan, Ellen decides to stay in Clark.
The hero returning home is a popular ploy on TV. But this is not the homespun nostalgia of NBC’s “Ed.” This is home, warts and all. And making Clark all the more hilarious are Jim Gaffigan, Martin Mull and Cloris Leachman. Writers Carol Leifer (“Seinfeld”) and Mitchell Hurwitz (“The Golden Girls”) are careful to play to everyone’s strong suit. Leachman is a pro at the comic absurd, Mull is wonderfully smarmy and Gaffigan is the lovable goof.
More importantly, DeGeneres gets to expand on her own self-depreciating humor, perfecting the awkward moment for the most laughs and utilizing smart writing with visual gags.
The best of the sight gags is when Ellen finds her bedroom virtually unchanged since high school. She opens the door to a room filled with Wonder Woman and Billie Jean King posters as well as a vivid Georgia O’Keefe print. “Yeah, didn’t have a clue, huh, Mom?” she remarks.
But in the Richmond family, Ellen is hardly the black sheep. Wholesome-looking sister Catherine (Emily Rutherfurd) has horrific taste in men, a plotline that gets used for several laughs. When Ellen refers to Catherine’s past beau Rudy as the one that got away, Catherine shoots back, “Oh no, they found him. He’s back in prison.”
Background music is a bit heavy-handed but director Andy Ackerman keeps a brisk pace, creating a taut and funny half-hour.