Wednesday 11 September 2013

Ellen: These Friends of Mine

I recently discovered, courtesy of youtube, that the 1990s sitcom Ellen had a first season. This might not sound like a stunning discovery, but it surprised me.

When Ellen was shown in the UK, they didn’t show season 1, so I was under the impression that season 2 was the first season and that it lasted for four years. During those four years it transformed from a flat-based sitcom to a work-based sitcom to an angst-filled sitcom until finally dying when it became a worthy sitcom. Finding it had a first season completes the story, as yet again that year was different to all the rest, being essentially Friends.

Of course plenty of sitcoms have tried to be cheap rip-offs of the most successful sitcom of all time, but Ellen was more interesting than most for the simple reason it was made before Friends.

The similarities between Ellen and Friends are many and strange, and I'm surprised it's not commented on more. The premise is the same of late twenty something friends sharing flats. Plots are broadly the same, such as Ellen dating an older guy and hilarity ensues, or Ellen and a friend date the same guy and hilarity ensues. Bit part actors crop up in both shows. Phoebe's weird brother appears in Ellen, Ellen's annoying friend Audrey plays a similar role in the Friends pilot, while Maggie Wheeler is a main character in Ellen playing a less nasal version of Janice.

Strangest of all, the title credit sequence comes over as a first draft gentler version of the Friends title credits and ends with everyone sitting on a sofa outside beside an illuminated lamp. And that's before even considering the sitcom was actually called These Friends of Mine before being changed to Ellen in season 2.

There's probably an alternate reality somewhere where Friends was cancelled after a few troubled and unsuccessful years, probably after revealing Chandler was in the closet after all, while These Friends of Mine became a global phenomenon with everyone wondering whether Adam and Ellen would ever get together. The reason it didn't happen is simple: These Friends of Mine isn't all that funny, but that in itself is interesting.

One of the odd things about successful sitcoms is that the main cast are nearly always horrible people. Friends is a classic case with all six main characters being arrogant, selfish, self-absorbed, entitled, whiney, vain good-for-nothings who spend every episode being rude to nicer people. For some reason horrible people make good comedy, whereas These Friends of Mine shows what happens when the main characters are genuinely nice people: you get nice people being nice and that's not very funny.

In season 1, Ellen is a kooky motormouth, but not so kooky and talkative that she's annoying. Adam is a pleasant bloke, while Anita is an ordinary woman. Oddest of all is Holly, who is shy and quiet. This isn't an unusual trait in sitcoms, but, for example, in shows like the Big Bang Theory shy and quiet people have to show they're shy and quiet by being outgoing and loud. Holly doesn’t do that. She's genuinely shy and quiet and is usually shown sitting nervously with downcast eyes. The thing is, that doesn’t work in comedy and neither does being ordinary or being nice.

So for season 2 the show was retitled as Ellen, it stopped trying to be Friends and left the new sitcom Friends to be Friends, and the supporting cast were unceremoniously ditched. Shy Holly left, never to be mentioned again, and was replaced with the loud and brassy Paige. Friendly Anita left, never to be mentioned again, and was replaced with the loud and annoying Audrey. And before long ordinary Adam left, never to be mentioned again, and was replaced with the loud and aggressive Spence while even the pleasant Ellen became loud and whiney.

And with those changes the comedy worked, until Dan put Ellen off men for life, but that's another story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Originally, the show drew a lot of comparisons to Seinfeld, and the TV network was very unhappy about that. But then they changed the title to the star's name, making it even more similar. And their half-page ads in TV Guide called it "a show about...whatever," evoking Seinfeld's "a show about nothing." Ellen was reportedly upset about the cast changes, especially losing Holly. I really think that Ellen's likable personality was what kept the show going for as long as it did. But the last season got too preachy, and became "the weekly gay rights sermon."