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Year in Review: 1997

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Re-rank the list of top news stories of 1997

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Princess Diana's death stuns the world

Weld steps out -
Cellucci steps forward

Mother Teresa is laid
to rest at age 87

Chinese rule returns
to Hong Kong

Supreme Court strikes
down 'Net decency act

UPS strike disrupts thousands of firms

Heaven's Gate cult commits mass suicide

Mars Pathfinder explores Red Planet

Ellen comes out, marking a first in TV

For the first time, a mammal is cloned


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'Ellen' makes history, and saves sitcom

By Frederic M. Biddle, Globe Staff, 04/30/97

Ellen DeGeneres, star of the sitcom 'Ellen.' Ellen DeGeneres, star of the sitcom "Ellen."

FIND OUT MORE

Ellen's coming out: The inside story
A Q&A with the show's producer

Gore praises Hollywood
for confronting biases


You might think that ''Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!'' holds more surprises than tonight's ''Ellen'' (9 p.m., WCVB-Ch. 5). But now for a real shock: Prime time's most hyped hour since we learned who shot J. R. is one of the great sitcom episodes of recent years.

Ellen DeGeneres and an infantry of writers, cast members, and guest stars have hopscotched a minefield. They've made TV history. But they've also fairly and credibly depicted the misunderstood process of coming out. And they've breathed instant soul into a lifeless sitcom - all in one hour.

''The Puppy Episode,'' so called because the show's executives once thought a warm puppy was the answer to Ellen's problems, was destined to be a dog of a show. Instead it's a champ. Yet some viewers will hate it.

Oh, how fans may cringe as Ellen Morgan hems and haws, dawdles and denies. Wild horses, water cannon, and Oprah Winfrey (who plays Ellen's shrink) can't un-closet mousy 35-year-old Ellen, who can scarcely bring herself to utter the word ''gay'' to another woman even though she's practically the first person Ellen's ever had a crush on.

Ellen lusts for Susan, the TV producer of her college chum turned weatherman, Richard. But she ends up smooching him, not her. And she falls into the sack with him - or, at least, untruthfully tells her friends as much the next morning. Gay she may be, but not proud.

As some viewers lose their temper over this, others will detest the fact that the same show, without even a lesbian peck on the lips, giddily conveys its star's newfound sense of sexual freedom.

Ellen DeGeneres doesn't really have a crush on guest star Laura Dern, who plays Susan. But the star is so clearly in love with her lesbian moment that she projects innocent erotic intensity through a simple hug.

''That felt great. That felt so great,'' she exclaims, smiling, breathing a bit too heavily. ''And it felt so . . . loud.''

Ellen's punch line merely refers to the fact that she has just embraced Susan in the middle of Los Angeles International airport, after accidentally telling her and onlookers that she's gay - over a loudspeaker, no less. But Ellen's moment of climax, with all its implications, is unmistakable.

This is sophisticated TV - never mind the unruly hooting of the live studio audience.

If Ellen Morgan's reluctance to come out tonight seems distastefully naive, even homophobic to some, it also shows what a painful, self-loathing experience coming out can be.

And that DeGeneres and Dern can make their hug project so that it feels almost like a red-blooded kiss - certainly more so than the infamous ''kiss'' episode of ''Roseanne'' - testifies to DeGeneres's talent.

This bodes well, given that Ellen Morgan is fated to be a Mickey Mouse lesbian, as packaged by Disney (which owns the show and ABC). DeGeneres has decreed that she won't kiss on her TV show. Yet the forethought shown in this episode suggests that such a moment is far from impossible. And should it happen, it promises to be worthwhile.

After 3 1/2 seasons of klutzy, sometimes unwatchable mugging on ''Ellen,'' DeGeneres has reclaimed the sparkle of the stand-up comedy act that won her the big TV gig in the first place. Ellen's comic non sequiturs finally make sense. Tonight, she makes magic out of mumbling. She exhales - and so will many fans.

Moreover, ''Ellen'' has given its star something solid to build on. Should ABC renew this show, it will enjoy a potential unmatched by any other TV series. Notwithstanding rare triumphs like ''The Larry Sanders Show,'' the sitcom genre has reached such a low ebb that television culture finds cause to celebrate the fact that a show can be about nothing (even though that show, ''Seinfeld,'' is occasionally brilliant).

''Ellen'' too has been a show about nothing - sometimes dreadfully so. As ''These Friends of Mine,'' its original incarnation, it was a shameless ''Seinfeld'' rip-off. But now ''Ellen'' has the potential to become the anti-''Seinfeld'' - a comedy that's not only about something, but stars a character whose relationship to the audience is not quite like any other on TV.


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