'Ellen' ends not a moment too soon Disappointing: Ellen DeGeneres chose to waste a golden opportunity with an unimaginative, unfunny and, in some ways, insulting final episode.

May 13, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

What a sorry ending.

A year ago, after both the lead character and star came out as lesbians in a smart and funny season finale, it felt like a privilege to write about "Ellen." This was the stuff of television history -- media as sociology with a capital "S."

Tonight, "Ellen" becomes history with its final episode, and my feelings are somewhere between deep disappointment and anger at Ellen DeGeneres and her show, "Ellen."

Much of that feeling comes from just having seen the finale, a one-hour special titled "Ellen: A Hollywood Tribute." It is supposed to be a parody, according to DeGeneres. But for that to be true, it would have to be both funny and satiric. It is neither. Instead, it is self-indulgent, self-righteous, self-pitying and tedious.

Tonight's show is set up like a Hollywood tribute to Ellen after an imaginary 50-year career in show business -- a career dating back to vaudeville. This is where the problems start.

It opens as a glittering, black-tie, ballroom made-for-television salute to a celebrity, then suddenly jumps genres to become a documentary with Linda Ellerbee interviewing Ellen in between filmed segments featuring Ellen at various points in her career.

The idea, according to DeGeneres, is to parody television and popular culture during the past half decade. It was an idea anyway.

So, there's DeGeneres dressed like Lucy when Lucy went to Italy and wound up stomping grapes. I don't know who's more pathetic, DeGeneres as Lucy or Jeremy Piven as Ricky Ricardo. There is no point to the segment except to dress the two up and have Piven do a bad imitation of Ricky's accented English.

Then, we get Ellen as host of a 1950s game show a la "What's My Line?" Here it is Ellen looking like Dorothy Kilgallen smoking up a storm out of a long, ebony cigarette holder. The purpose of her game show is not to guess the guest's occupation but rather to determine whether or not the guest is a Communist. This is where "Ellen: A Hollywood Tribute" really starts to make me mad.

The one coherent thread throughout this intellectually bankrupt hour is an attempt by DeGeneres and the writers to link her as a lesbian in victimhood to persons who were blacklisted from the film and television industry during the 1950s for alleged links to the Communist Party.

Someone I love was blacklisted during that time and, through him, I came to understand a little bit of how horrible it was to be denied almost arbitrarily the chance to make a living in your chosen profession.

In her silly attempt to wrap herself in the mantle of victim, "Ellen" cheapens the memory of all those who saw their careers and, in many cases, their lives shredded during that terrible period of American history.

DeGeneres didn't lose work because she came out as a lesbian. In fact, she got work because she came out as a lesbian -- a full xTC extra season of "Ellen" episodes this year at a cost of about $30 million to ABC. There isn't a chance in a million that series would have been renewed last May if she hadn't come out; the industry rewarded rather than persecuted her for it.

And what did ABC get for its money? One brilliant episode with guest star Emma Thompson, a handful of earnest episodes with Ellen exploring a meaningful relationship and 16 or 17 brain-dead half hours featuring Ellen in a Civil War re-enactment or Ellen working at a radio station. DeGeneres had an incredible platform to reach 10 million or 12 million viewers a week with even a mediocre show. Instead, she produced an awful one.

For most of the year, I thought Ellen simply wasn't up to the challenge -- didn't have the brains or talent to create the kind of show that would have encouraged network executives to take more chances and develop a diverse, inclusive prime-time landscape, more representative of social reality.

But then came this episode, showing an absolute lack of imagination. A weepy DeGeneres in TV and magazine interviews played the sexual orientation card for all it was worth, saying her show was being canceled because she was "too gay."

Maybe I'm taking Ellen's failings too personally, but I was one of the folks championing the idea of a prime-time network series with a leading gay character from the moment the idea was floated past me by a network executive in the fall of 1996.

I am also the guy who compared DeGeneres' Ellen Morgan character to Lucy Ricardo after seeing DeGeneres play foil to Thompson. It was a gender-bending version of Lucy meets John Wayne, and the tremendous potential DeGeneres had to challenge stereotypes was confirmed by the Letters-to-the-Editor debate in The Sun after that episode and the Ellen-Lucy comparison.

Tonight, she comes before us dressed like Lucy, and she couldn't be farther away in terms of energy or comic inspiration.

DeGeneres tries to paper over the black hole at the center of this "tribute" with loads of guest stars: Helen Hunt, Ted Danson, Glenn Close, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cindy Crawford, Christine Lahti, Diahann Carroll, Jennifer Aniston and Woody Harrelson among others.

It's a Hollywood tribute all right -- all glitter and no soul, lots of good-looking people with nothing meaningful to say.

In the end, it wasn't that you were too gay, Ellen. You were just too irresponsible to seize the chance to make a difference.

What a sorry ending.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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