Episode 22 of the 4th season of the sitcom Ellen, first aired on ABC April 30, 1997. The episode was a double-length 60 minutes, and garnered a 26.5 rating and 37 share in the Nielsen ratings, the series' highest ever, assisted by a blitz of media coverage about the episode and the show's lead, comic Ellen DeGeneres. In raw numbers of viewers, it was the third-most watched series episode to date, behind the M*A*S*H finale and Dallas's "Who Shot J.R.?". Why all the fuss? Well, in Friends notation, this would be The One Where Ellen Comes Out. A first for broadcast television, it was accompanied by a massive media buzz and packed with a host of big-name guest appearances, among them sapphic musical icons k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge (I guess Ani was too much to hope for...) and supermodel Jenny Shimizu, plus other ambiguous and hetero notables. But I digress. Before we go any further, a summary:

FTEGOMCS Code: ELLEN MORGAN/441:236.E234>448
Richard, a television anchorman and old college friend of Ellen's, is in town, and the two meet for dinner. During the meal, Richard's producer Susan (played by Laura Dern) joins them, and her and Ellen hit it off. Later, Ellen and Richard talk in his hotel room, but Ellen grows uncomfortable and flees when he hits on her. Running into Susan in the hall, Ellen then goes to her room and the two talk. After a while, it comes up that Susan is gay, and she mentions that she had thought that Ellen was too. Ellen initially reacts with discomfort and some distaste to this idea, and attempts to return to Richard's room to sleep with him, thus affirming her heterosexuality. She finds she cannot bring herself to do it, but boasts to her friends the next day as if she had. After reflection and some time with her therapist (Oprah Winfrey), she comes to the realization that she herself is in fact gay and has developed a crush on Susan. Believing that Susan has been called away by work, Ellen rushes to the airport to see her off. She comes out to Susan and, inadvertently, everyone at the boarding gate, and then discovers that she had been mistaken - Richard is the one who is leaving, and Susan is staying for another few days. After a very Freudian, cameo-heavy dream sequence and some more therapy, she comes out to her friends and attempts to court Susan, only to discover that she is already in a relationship. Ellen's supportive, if somewhat misguided, friends take her to a lesbian coffeehouse, and at the conclusion of the episode she tells her therapist of her happiness and relief at the decision to come out. After the credits, there is a brief continuation of an earlier joke about winning a toaster oven for converting enough people to homosexuality.

This episode marked possibly the most prominent, and definitely the most hyped gay-themed plotline in television history to date, and made Ellen the first television show in history (on an American broadcast network, at least) with an openly gay lead character. This wasn't exactly a surprise - speculation about Ellen DeGeneres', and Ellen Morgan's sexuality had been all over the entertainment news, spawning scores of "is she or isn't she" columns, references, and asides in the glossy magazines and tabloid TV shows of America. On the more watchable end of the spectrum, Ellen herself appeared in an episode of The Larry Sanders Show based on the "controversy" (#69, "Ellen, or Isn't She?"). Publicity fed on itself, the issue growing to such prominence that even after it was a foregone conclusion that both Ellens were gay, DeGeneres' formal and public declaration of her homosexuality, two weeks before the airing of The Puppy Episode (the airdate and contents of which were publicly known at least a month ahead of time), made the cover of Time. This seems ridiculous now, and it did even then - one must keep in mind that it was a slow news year. The show maintained and played on an awareness of all this attention, and the 4th season was rife with increasingly obvious subtext and double entendres, continuing all the way up through The Puppy Episode's teaser (pre-opening) scene. It's worth noting that the episode's title was a remnant of the very different mindset of earlier times, when the idea of the character's coming out was still in the conceptual phase, and was referred to as "Ellen getting a puppy" to avoid drawing attention.

Setting aside the surrounding buzz and judging the episode on its own merits, I'd call it so-so. DeGeneres played this one pretty well - I think her earlier work on this show was far underrated - making good use of what I find to be her greatest comic strengths, a talent for expressing her thoughts with her face and a strong instinct for timing. Dern turned in a solid performance that netted her an Emmy nomination, and I assume the rest of the "special guests" and supporting cast were decent, as nothing comes to mind one way or the other. The writing I'm more reserved on - the writers can be forgiven to some extent insofar as they were dealing with an event which had never really been treated before in teleplay format, and I will admit that there were some pretty good individual lines, but the pacing was a little uneven and even at double-length, Ellen seems to undergo a major life-changing process in a ridiculously short time. The quick resolution of major issues is a known factor of all episodic television plotting, but I still think something like this deserved a multiple-episode story arc. Of course, spreading out the story across multiple weeks might not have allowed the producers to leverage the massive media frenzy to the extent that they could with this one episode. I think this problem was compounded by the fact that everyone seems far too supportive than is natural in this episode - aside from her initial and quickly reversed hesitancy, Ellen doesn't seem to have any difficulty in coming to terms with her sexuality, and even when one of her friends remarks that "I still can't believe Ellen is gay", it certainly doesn't show, and they all seem to instantly accept and integrate this radically new identity. Not one person has, or at least voices second thoughts about whether Ellen's really gay or just experimenting, and god forbid Ellen's sudden change or newfound homosexuality make some character uncomfortable. This reduces the earlier part of the episode to an "internal conflict" that doesn't really seem to leave Ellen very conflicted, and once she declares her orientation at the airport, the remaining half of the episode is left meandering, unfocused, and a little self-indulgent. Of course, someone must not have agreed with me, as the writing for this episode actually won an Emmy, and also garnered directing and editing nominations, plus Laura Dern's aforementioned "Outstanding Guest Actress", with DeGeneres also picking up an "Actress, Comedy Series" nomination for her work on the series as a whole that season. I tend to think that a lot of this was that people felt obligated to recognize the episode's "groundbreaking" nature one way or another.

Taking a longer view, this was really a shark-jumping episode - the episodes that immediately followed tended to focus on Ellen being a lesbian, which is only fair - after coming out, there are a lot of new things to deal with - telling your parents, starting to date, considering gay "cultural" groups and institutions, seeing a heterosexual-assuming world through new eyes - all full of the kind of absurdity that translates so well into comedy. But it was when the months went on and these themes never petered off that things got a bit sour. After a while, it seemed like the writers just couldn't resist tossing in a gay subplot or reference in situations where almost everyone, from the most flamboyant queen to the most humdrum breeder, would agree it was kind of ridiculous for sexuality to come into the picture. And then there were the times when the writers made a run at "breaking stereotypes" or worse yet, "confronting prejudice", which tended to come off as pedantic, telegraphed, and in and of themselves fairly stereotypical. While I don't begrudge any sitcom writer the opportunity to think up a plot that had never been tried before (better that than another "A walks in on B in the shower, believing them to be C, awkwardness ensues"), I think they lost sight of the fact that Ellen was about a funny woman who (with the benefit of hindsight) was gay, rather than a gay woman who was (nominally) funny. Despite an initial boost on the tails of The Puppy Episode, Nielsen ratings fell to below previous seasons' level. Less than a year after the episode's airing, the show was canceled and replaced midseason by the forgettable Two Guys, a Girl & a Pizza Place (later just Two Guys and a Girl). There were rumors at the time that ABC was growing uncomfortable with the content of the show, but while they did lose a few boycott-wary advertisers around the airing of The Puppy Episode, and there were documented battles between the show's producers and network Standards and Practices over the propriety of showing lesbian intimacy onscreen, if the network (owned at the time by the notoriously gay-friendly Walt Disney Company) did have any objections to the orientation, as it were, of the show, I'm inclined to believe they were more along the aesthetic lines noted above.

So after reading all that, lest you feel I think the episode was a total waste, let me correct you. Yes, as a piece of art, the episode is not going to be remembered through the ages, but I do think it's a good thing that the episode happened, that television finally got a gay leading character. It's certainly no Stonewall Riots and I don't know if it was done as well as it could have been, but at least it was done. The fact that it seems ridiculous that a TV character being gay would merit national attention as recently as 5 years ago is a positive sign. Yes, gays still do tend to be disproportionately represented as secondary characters, with somewhat two-dimensional and stereotypical characterization, especially in sitcoms, but when you get down to it, that's how everybody comes off in sitcoms. Since The Puppy Episode, well fleshed-out gay characters and gay leads have increased in number, and by 2001, when Ellen DeGeneres eventually got another sitcom, The Ellen Show, on CBS, she again played a lesbian, this time with almost no fanfare (though that show was also eventually ::cough:: canceled). Of course, if it weren't Ellen, it would have inevitably been some other show to break the ice, but someone always has to be first.

(Bonus trivia: Volkswagon's "Da da da" commercial debuted with the first airing of this episode.)

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