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Bruce Handy/Los Angeles

Different media have different thresholds for scandal. Controversy in the movies might mean making a film that glorifies one of the nation’s most repugnant pornographers. Controversy in literature might mean writing a memoir about the affair you had with your father when you were in your 20s. In television, which functions not just as a business and debased art form but also as an increasingly fractured nation’s de facto mirror of itself, the threshold is much lower. Controversy could mean starring in a sitcom as a gently scatterbrained former bookstore owner who, after years of adult floundering, reluctantly comes to a realization about her homosexuality and begins to take a few hesitant baby steps out of the closet and toward getting a life.

“I hate that term ‘in the closet,'” says Ellen DeGeneres, the aforementioned sitcom star whose all-pants wardrobe and sometimes awkward chemistry with male ingenues was provoking curiosity from fans and reporters long before her sexuality became a minor national obsession. “Until recently I hated the word lesbian too,” she continues. “I’ve said it enough now that it doesn’t bother me. But lesbian sounded like somebody with some kind of disease. I didn’t like that, so I used the word gay more often.”

What she hasn’t been able to bring herself to do, until now, is use the word gay along with “I am” in public. Indeed, for a lot of men and women whose livelihood depends on the goodwill of millions, those may be the three scariest words in the English language. “I always thought I could keep my personal life separate from my professional life,” says DeGeneres while sitting in a patio at her home in Beverly Hills. “In every interview I ever did”–she’s squinting, too polite to interrupt this one even though the sun is clearly in her eyes–“everyone tried to trap me into saying I was gay. And I learned every way to dodge that. Or if they just blatantly asked me, I would say I don’t talk about my personal life. I mean, I really tried to figure out every way to avoid answering that question for as long as I could.”

That became a lot harder last September when the news leaked, unintentionally by all accounts, that DeGeneres wanted to have the character she plays on Ellen, her three-year-old ABC sitcom, discover that she–the character, that is–is a lesbian. For DeGeneres, 39, the decision was the culmination of a long process of struggling with feelings about her own sexuality, her fears about being rejected for it, her wish to lead a more honest and open life in public, her weariness at the effort it took her not to. For the public, the news was a sensation: a gay lead on TV–that would be a first, and to those who attach importance to these sorts of things, either a long time coming or another way station on the road to moral abandon.

Or maybe it was just something to gossip about. In a series of TV interviews last fall, previously scheduled to promote a new CD but suddenly subjected to intense scrutiny because of the coming-out rumors, DeGeneres joked awkwardly that she was Lebanese, or that the real news was that a character named Les Bian would be joining Ellen’s cast. She even kidded her own teasing reticence on an episode of The Larry Sanders Show that had her hopping into bed for man-woman sex with the fictional male talk-show host.

Finally, after things dragged on all winter, ABC announced last month that the character of Ellen Morgan would indeed be coming out in a special one-hour episode on the last day of April, just in time for sweeps. That resolved, DeGeneres, who had felt constrained from speaking frankly about the issue while her sitcom’s fate was still in the balance, is coming out too. “For me,” she says, “this has been the most freeing experience because people can’t hurt me anymore. I don’t have to worry about somebody saying something about me, or a reporter trying to find out information. Literally, as soon as I made this decision, I lost weight. My skin has cleared up. I don’t have anything to be scared of, which I think outweighs whatever else happens in my career.”

In a sense, the burden lifted from DeGeneres’ shoulders has landed on those of her bosses at ABC and Touchstone Television, which co-produces Ellen (both, of course, are part of the Walt Disney Co.). Dealing with controversy isn’t usually a TV executive’s strongest suit. It’s not that there aren’t already gay characters on television. There are–so many, in fact (22 as of February, according to the Advocate, a national gay-and-lesbian magazine, from the lovelorn Smithers on The Simpsons to the lovelorn Matt on Melrose Place), that one of Ellen’s producers offers the half-joking observation that homosexuals “have become the new stock character, like the African-American pal at the workplace.”

But all those characters are either peripheral or part of an ensemble. Like Mary Richards before her, Ellen Morgan functions as her show’s center, around whom the rest of the cast revolves–structurally, Ellen Morgan is Mary Richards, except she likes girls. She provides the window into the show’s comedic world; she is the character we are asked to identify with, the person to whom we are asked to give tacit approval. That’s why, in a country that still has a lot of conflicts about homosexuality, this formerly innocuous, intermittently funny series is now pushing buttons in a way that other shows with gay characters haven’t. It’s also why, after a telephone threat, the soundstage on the neat and tidy Disney lot in Burbank where Ellen is filmed had to be cleared before the final segment of the coming-out episode was shot and bomb-sniffing dogs brought in.

All this comes at a time when television is subject to greater scrutiny than ever before–dating back, at least, to then Vice President Dan Quayle’s famous 1992 speech in which he lambasted the character Murphy Brown for choosing to have a child out of wedlock. One can endlessly debate the question of whether television influences society or reflects it: Does Ellen Morgan’s coming out in what is still our massest medium legitimize homosexuality, or does the sponsorship of a bottom-line business like ABC merely reflect its acceptance by a significant portion of the population? Clearly, the answer is both, that TV and culture play off each other in ways that are hard to codify. Any attempt to reduce these complex reverberations to a black-or-white issue is, well, the kind of thing you’d expect from television.

Ironically, this ongoing obsession with TV’s responsibility comes at a time when the networks’ hold on the viewing public continues to erode–just this past February the networks’ share of the total viewing audience dropped 4.6% from a year ago, continuing a two-decades-long decline. But whatever Ellen’s fate with the Nielsens, television’s treatment of sexuality is likely to continue becoming increasingly frank, vulgar or immoral, depending on one’s vantage point and what, of course, one is viewing (Chicago Hope? Married…With Children? A made-for-TV movie starring Tori Spelling as a hooker?) The medium–and America–has patently come a long way from the 1952-53 season, when the cast of I Love Lucy couldn’t utter the word pregnant during Little Ricky’s gestation period, or 1965 when, a year after network TV got its first double marital bed on Bewitched, Barbara Eden was forbidden by NBC to show her belly button on I Dream of Jeannie.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of TV history as one long, uninterrupted drift toward untrammeled license. Moral values are, of course, relative. Party of Five features yards of premarital sex, yet is also a warmer celebration of family bonds than, say, Leave It to Beaver or The Donna Reed Show. Today there are new taboos. “Nobody’s going to do abortion on a sitcom today, but Maude did it back in 1972,” says Bruce Helford, co-creator and executive producer of The Drew Carey Show. He’s referring to the famous episodes of Maude in which Bea Arthur’s title character not only considered having an abortion, as a number of TV characters have in years since, but actually went out and got one. “Abortion,” Helford believes, “is way too hot a subject now. Stuff that shows like All in the Family did–I don’t think they’d let you get away with the kind of show with humor about racism, like the episode where Archie Bunker met Sammy Davis Jr. We’ve really gone backward in a big way.” Marta Kauffman, co-creator and executive producer of Friends, complains that her series wasn’t allowed to show an actual condom, whereas just a few seasons earlier, Seinfeld was. “Things have changed over the past few years,” she grumbles. “You couldn’t do the masturbation episode of Seinfeld today.”

In the big Ellen episode–filmed over two consecutive Fridays last month amid an atmosphere that seemed half party, half support group–an old college friend (male) comes on to Ellen, who slowly realizes that she is attracted to the friend’s female colleague, played by Laura Dern, a close friend of DeGeneres’ in real life (a description that should not be read into). Oprah Winfrey, in a surprisingly droll and low-key performance, plays Ellen’s therapist. A whole flock of other celebrities–also friends of DeGeneres’, including Demi Moore, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang and Billy Bob Thornton–showed their support by doing cameos on the episode.

Both ABC and Touchstone seem to be genuinely pleased with the results. “We’re very proud. We think Ellen and the show’s staff have executed it beautifully,” says Jamie Tarses, president of ABC Entertainment. At the same time, she adds, “obviously this is an experiment. We’re not sociologists. We don’t know how this is going to be received.”

Well, they could have wagered a few easy guesses. The news that Ellen Morgan would come out brought predictable applause from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which is building a national “Come Out with Ellen” day around the episode; and predictable denunciations from the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who referred to the star in gentlemanly fashion as “Ellen DeGenerate,” and from the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, whose American Family Association has issued barely veiled threats to boycott Ellen’s advertisers. A stalwart ABC says it nevertheless expects that Ellen will be fully sponsored, although two occasional advertisers on Ellen, J.C. Penney and Chrysler, have announced they won’t continue to sponsor the show. This can’t have made ABC happy. But even for controversial shows there are usually enough advertisers to go around if the ratings promise to be high enough, which controversy often ensures. The network remains optimistic.

In less vested precincts of Hollywood, there seems to be little consensus about how the show will do. “What you’ll find is that Ellen is going to take a hit on this,” says Dick Wolf, creator of Law & Order. “If it was my show I probably wouldn’t have done it. This is one specific area that a large percentage of the population is still very uncomfortable with.” Bruce Helford, the Drew Carey producer, is more bullish: “I think there will be a big spike in the ratings. But if it’s just one big thing and then they go back to the same show, and she’s a lesbian, but the same old things happen to her, the boost won’t last.”

He is getting at something that has long plagued Ellen, which sometimes feels like Seinfeld after a game of telephone. Although the show debuted three years ago in the Nielsens top five as These Friends of Mine, the sitcom has since stumbled through a number of cast, staff and time-slot changes, never quite jelling creatively, even by DeGeneres’ estimation, and settling into the ratings’ upper midrange. A major problem has been the indistinct character of Ellen Morgan, who seems to drift wackily through each show without ever offering much in the way of believable motivation, even in the elastic sense that usually applies to sitcoms. For a while she owned a bookstore, but the profession seemed more an arbitrary choice to inject “workplace humor.” After the second season she stopped dating–some writers say because DeGeneres was uncomfortable with overtly heterosexual story lines, although she says she simply wasn’t interested in doing a show that focused on relationships. As it happens, the code working title of the coming-out script, The Puppy Episode, is an in-joke reference to one of the lamer attempts to juice up the show: an executive’s suggestion–DeGeneres won’t say whose–that the show’s creative problems might be solved if Ellen Morgan got a puppy.

Was Ellen Morgan really gay all along, before not only the character knew it but DeGeneres and the writers as well? According to Dava Savel, one of Ellen’s three executive producers, sparks often flew between DeGeneres and female guests. She cites in particular an episode with Janeane Garafalo. “There wasn’t supposed to be a lesbian thing at all, but afterward we were watching the tape and we were like, ‘Whoa!'”

DeGeneres is certainly not averse to the idea that the new plot twist is organic rather than desperate: “It made sense the character was gay–not that I ever started with that intention.” At ABC and Disney, the idea of Ellen Morgan’s coming out had been discussed off and on as a possible fix for the show almost since its inception. So executives were receptive, if cautious, when DeGeneres and the show’s producers first approached them last summer about the possibility. “It’s not a no-brainer,” understates Tarses, but tentative permission was granted for the show to go ahead, pending final approval of the script. Regrettably, at least from DeGeneres’ and her staff’s vantage point, the dragged-out decision process left them twisting in the wind.

Among other problems, a source says, there was also a feeling at Disney–perhaps because of an overzealous reading of management’s mood–that the Ellen decision might best be delayed until after last February’s Disney stockholders’ meeting so that chairman Michael Eisner would be spared having to defend that as well as his salary and Mike Ovitz’s lavish payout. “When Disney or ABC were worried about boycotts or this or that, I kept saying to everybody, ‘I’m the one who’s going to get the biggest boycott,'” says DeGeneres. “‘You can cancel the show, you can go and make another one. It’s not going to hurt you. I’m the product here.'”

Her show’s new direction will be groundbreaking not only for having a gay lead character, but for having a gay lead character who is not yet entirely comfortable with her sexuality–a departure from the normal run of things in the ’90s, when gay characters on TV tend to be proud, assertive and more or less uplifting. It’s surely not happenstance that Melrose Place’s Matt is the only character on the show with any kind of grace or nobility, nor that a pair of secondary lesbian characters on Friends have the most stable relationship on the show, as do, for that matter, a secondary pair of gay male characters on Ellen. Ellen Morgan, on the other hand, ends her coming-out episode sitting awkwardly in a lesbian coffeehouse, unsure of how to comport herself in this new environment and with this new knowledge of herself. It’s actually kind of poignant. The character is also denied an affirming liplock with her female love interest–a former taboo that was long ago shattered by L.A. Law, Roseanne and, earlier this season, Relativity (men kissing men, on the other hand, remains, for now, a no-no).

When asked about kissing women on TV, DeGeneres is adamant: “It was the last thing I wanted to do. I don’t want people to watch me kiss somebody. That’s not what this is about. Ellen Morgan is scared to death. She just found out she’s gay. She doesn’t know how to kiss a girl yet. When you realize you’re gay, it’s like being in grade school. It’s your first kiss–that’s a nervous thing, you know? That’s what’s so exciting about this, to be able to show the whole process of coming out for the first time.” She’s right–much of the episode mines a rich new comic vein for the series. And in this case, DeGeneres’ desire for truthfulness–and for keeping her show’s focus off dating, gay or straight (“Mary Richards didn’t date that much,” she points out)–fits well with Touchstone’s and ABC’s that the show proceed cautiously. “Ellen won’t become the lesbian dating show” is the party line one hears again and again.

“Ellen Morgan is still in a very heterosexual situation,” insists Dava Savel. “Almost all her friends are heterosexuals. If one of the other characters has a guy that they’re interested in, she’s the first to say, ‘Omigod, he’s hot.’ It’s just not going to be an option for Ellen to date him.” Not that lesbians shouldn’t appreciate male beauty, but this does smack a bit of the we’re-doing-it-but-we’re-not-doing-it attitude with which television often ends up approaching taboos, which might best be exemplified by the first interracial kiss on TV between Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Lieut. Uhura. Back then, in 1968, the couple was forced by alien telepathy to smooch against their will.

In Ellen’s last two episodes of the season, she will come out to her parents and then to her new boss at the bookstore. She will suffer some rejection. Next season–assuming that ABC wants to renew the show and DeGeneres wants to return, which she says she might not–is uncharted territory. It would be hyperbole to say television will never be the same. But clearly this has been a landmark for DeGeneres. “I was thinking,” she says, “what’s the thing anyone could ask me now or say about me? And it’s like nothing, really. I mean, not even Howard Stern can hurt me now.” In 1997, that’s power.

–With reporting by Elizabeth L. Bland and William Tynan/New York and Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

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