Ellen: The Complete Season Four (review)

I will never love sitcoms, with their overly broad humor — the genre, it seems to me, frequently shows up even its own supposedly hero characters as shallow, childish, and contradictory — and their reliance on contrived circumstance over character foibles for their laughs. But I have to admit that, although I was pretty down on the first season of this show, buried under the usual nonsense in the fourth and penultimate year of Ellen DeGeneres’s self-titled sitcom is a world of genuine soul-searching, poignant heartache, and intriguing self-discovery that will be recognizable to anyone who has ever felt as if she didn’t quite fit in. These 25 episodes, which aired in 1996 and 1997, comprise the now-famous — or infamous — coming-out odyssey for the now comfortably out-of-the-closet DeGeneres, and serve as a reminder of how far pop culture has come in the intervening decade, and yet how little things have changed for gays and lesbians. DeGeneres’s Los Angeles bookstore owner is neurotic in the sweetest way, a woman who covers up her discomfort in her own skin with an abundance of charm, friendliness, and good humor, and yet these stories — involving her parents’ breakup, the acquisition of a house and a mortgage, friends’ pregnancy scares, rescuing an abandoned dog, babysitting coworkers’ kids, and more — serve as a piling on of reminders about all that society pressures a single woman, gay or straight, to “supposed to” want… and as any woman might indeed want, if on her own terms and in her own time. The surface is still a lot of goofy crap, but the subtext is a sneaky and unexpected stroll through the dilemmas of modern feminism. One episode features audio commentaries, but that’s about it for extras.

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