Critic's Notebook: 20 Years Later, 'Ellen's' 'The Puppy Episode' Remains Significant (and Funny)

Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom coming-out is still a star-studded, often hilarious look at acceptance.
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'The Puppy Episode' of 'Ellen.'
There are surely ways in which "The Puppy Episode" of Ellen shows its age as it approaches its 20th anniversary April 30.
 
There are the dueling Karl Childers impressions that help Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres) and Susan (Laura Dern) bond, followed by the far more impressive impression courtesy of Dern's then-fiance Billy Bob Thornton. Dwight Yoakam also cameos, giving future generations of viewers the impression that at least for a few moments in 1996 and 1997, Slingblade was the most important movie ever made. Mmm-hmm.
 
 
Other pop culture references seem similarly of-the-moment, including Jerry Maguire references and touchstones of lesbian cinema like Bound, which explains Gina Gershon's cameo.
 
A crucial scene at the end of the first half-hour finds Ellen running to the airport, as romantic-comedy leads still do, and sprinting straight to gate. Man, it was easier to stop the person you loved from getting on that plane to Pittsburgh in 1997.
 
Let's see ... Other things that seem dated ... I think Susan wears acid-washed jeans in one scene? Or maybe they're just light blue? Definitely the cut of the jeans is 1997 all over.

 
In revisiting "The Puppy Episode" two decades later, you can quickly spot the things that are dated. They stand out as the exceptions. It's easy to reflect on "The Puppy Episode" because it was important, but it's even easier to reflect on its importance because it is, all precedent-smashing aside, a great episode of TV. 
 
The thing that struck me first in rewatching "The Puppy Episode" is that culturally the things that have changed are almost completely the externals that surrounded the episode and the show itself. Would Time give a sitcom star a cover for coming out today? Probably not, though if the star were big enough — Jerry Seinfeld? One of the Friends? — maybe? Could you get 42 million viewers by having a main character on a moderately rated sitcom come out? If so, you can bet that Kevin could not wait to be telling the world he liked men and that the man with a plan's new plan would involve finding an unexpected new love.
 
 
Would ABC run subsequent episodes with a parental advisory warning just because the show had a gay main character? Yes, the fifth season of Ellen saw every episode preceded with a warning. That was 1997 and 1998. It wasn't like after Ellen Morgan came out of the closet, the show became pornographic. It just became a show in which the main character's sexuality was a part of the character, kinda the way most shows about characters in their 20s and 30s periodically mention who the main characters are dating or sleeping with. Because Ellen being gay continued to be a part of the show going forward, the series faced criticism that it might be doing harm by alienating straight viewers. You'd never get a parental advisory warning before a show like Ellen today, but one need look no further than The Real O'Neals to see that "how to depict being gay without scaring straight audiences" is still a thing shows with gay main characters face now, and look no further than Real O'Neals star Noah Galvin (both his notorious Vulture interview and the reaction to it) to see that there are still passionate responses to the "right" and "wrong" ways to be gay in public.
 
 
One also need look no further than The Real O'Neals to see that broadcast network sitcoms with gay main characters haven't exactly taken over the marketplace and to see that even in 2016 or 2017, even a fairly harmless show with a gay main character can still get a certain amount of protest and push-back from religious or family advocacy groups.
 
That's all, as I said, about the external. 
 
What happens within "The Puppy Episode" works and isn't likely to suddenly become dated until heteronormativity isn't the representational coin of the media land. It isn't that Ellen Morgan was some voraciously straight character in the show's first three seasons. She dated occasionally and with consistently disappointing results, but the show's focus was never on Ellen's romantic life. She was, at best, a non-practicing heterosexual for most of the show's run. The acceptance that comes in "The Puppy Episode" isn't a drastic change, but an acceptance of things she gradually realizes — thanks to Oprah Winfrey as her understanding shrink — she's been feeling since junior high. The difficulties she feels in making the big announcement that's made into an airport microphone at the end of the first half-hour are about self-acceptance and owning an identity that can sometimes/often lead to societal prejudice. Ellen's journey was powerful and close to unprecedented in 1997, and it's still powerful, albeit more frequently represented, in 2017.  I can't think of any circumstance in which that's likely to change in the next two decades.
 
 
Also, Ellen's journey in these two episodes is hilarious. I think I may have rewatched the episode in 2001 or 2002 in grad school, but I definitely haven't watched it since and yet almost every line of Mark Driscoll, Tracy Newman, Dava Savel and Jonathan Stark's script was stuck in my head, from the coy opening meta jokes ("Yeah, Ellen, quit jerking us around and come out already.") on.
 
"What like I'm giving off some kind of gay vibration? I think what you're sensing is a very, very strong 'I like men' vibe."
 
"What's your secret?" "I guess I'm just a sucker for man-woman sex."
 
"I guess what I'm trying to say is ... I did get the joke about the toaster oven."
 
So many of the moments in the episode are just iconic television, and a lot of that comes from how generally underrated Ellen DeGeneres was as a sitcom star. The charming, stuttering deadpan that was her trademark — more than a few shades of Bob Newhart — is in full effect, but it's even funnier than normal here because of the dramatic beats, including her uncertain and revelatory scenes with Oprah and nearly everything opposite terrific guest star Dern. DeGeneres playing the multicam schtick well is one thing, but what impresses in the episode is her ability to play the polar extremes of that happy smile when Susan asks her to coffee at the airport and the crushed expression as she realizes Susan is in a long-term relationship. This episode shows what we lost when DeGeneres decided her calling was in being a personality rather than an actress.
 
Around DeGeneres and Dern's performance, the episode is about Ellen Morgan's allies, in the sweet and funny reactions of her friends, and Ellen DeGeneres' allies, in the cameras from Thornton, Gershon, Yoakam, k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, Demi Moore and more. It's an episode that's equally about Ellen's acceptance of herself, everybody within the show's acceptance of Ellen, and network TV's acceptance of the show, the character and its star.
 
Twenty years on, "The Puppy Episode" may not produce the same ripples as it originally does, but DeGeneres has always been confrontational in the warmest and least aggressive way possible, which is probably how you draw in 42 million viewers. "The Puppy Episode" still plays as welcoming and funny as it did in 1997, and you can't always say that about Very Special Episodes — this one was very, very special.
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