`Ellen' a nice, smart sitcom

Previews: Sexual orientation aside, there's nothing untraditional about this show

Fall Tv 2001

September 24, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The Ellen Show is a nice, old-fashioned sitcom about a lesbian who returns to her home town and becomes a high school guidance counselor.

If "nice" and "old-fashioned" seem like adjectives that couldn't possibly be used to describe any network series featuring a lesbian character in such a role, all I can do is ask you to watch when the series premieres tonight at 9:30 on CBS.

Ellen DeGeneres plays a character named Ellen Richmond, but she might as well be named Mary Richards, because this is The Mary Tyler Moore Show gone gay. And the best thing about it is that no one makes a big deal about Ellen Richmond being lesbian. She is just a very nice person with a wry sense of humor trying to find her way in the world after her big-city dot-com company goes bust.

There is nothing daring, stylistically innovative or breakthrough about The Ellen Show, which is one of the reasons it has left a lot of critics yawning. (You watch 30 mediocre new network series, and you'd be looking for the edge, too, believe me.)

But, written in part by Carol Leifer, of Seinfeld fame, this is a very smart show. The second episode with Richmond trying to read Walden Pond as she ponders her future is as clever a riff on the grown-women-returning-to-their-hometowns trend of television programs as I've seen.

The Ellen Show also has one of the better ensemble casts in television supporting DeGeneres. From Cloris Leachman, of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to Jim Gaffigan and Martin Mull, this is a cast that understands the rhythms of traditional sitcom humor and knows how to pace its performances accordingly.

I have no idea if America is ready to embrace this character. That's assuming the series even gets a fair sampling in its dreadful regular time period of Friday nights at 8.

Asked how she feels about the time period, DeGeneres quipped, "I'm thrilled. I'm hoping we can move to Sunday mornings at 7. But for now, this is great."

The Ellen Show is filled with that kind of humor. I hope it finds an audience.

`Crossing Jordan'

Jill Hennessy was just fine as a third or fourth wheel on Law & Order in the mid-1990s. But, after seeing the first two episodes of Crossing Jordan, I'm not sure she has the range to star in a weekly drama.

By the end of the first 30 minutes of the pilot of this series about a Boston medical examiner with lots of personal issues, it felt like I had seen all her acting moves. From there on out, it was strictly deja vu.

Not that Hennessy deja vu is all bad, or that Crossing Jordan, which premieres at 10 tonight on NBC, is hopeless. In fact, the series has considerable promise, especially in the character Dr. Garret Macy (Miguel Ferrer), a clinically depressed chief medical examiner who talks to a sock puppet. I love the character almost as much as his puppet.

Anger is supposed to be what Hennessy's character, Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, is all about. She's angry about the death of her mother when she was a little girl. She's angry about her father (Ken Howard) being unjustly kicked off the Boston police force for trying to solve her mother's death. She's angry about male bosses patronizing her and female colleagues who kiss up to males bosses to get promoted. She's angry, angry, angry.

I love television that speaks to my anger the way NYPD Blue does with Det. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) or Homicide: Life on the Street used to with Det. Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher).

So, maybe it's a gender thing. Maybe I don't like Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh more because she's a woman and I'm a guy. Maybe, but I think more likely it's because Hennessy is no Dennis Franz or Andre Braugher.

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