11/10/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
ABC (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET)
I wish you would stop assuming that everything is tied to my sexuality," Ellen Morgan (Ellen DeGeneres) said to a friend a few weeks ago, lodging perhaps the most disingenuous complaint in this sitcom's 3½-year history. If DeGeneres hadn't come out as a lesbian last spring and brought her character with her, Ellen's ebbing ratings might have led to a quiet death. Now everyone's talking about the show—from Al Gore (pro) to the Christian Coalition (con) to the star herself (threatening to quit because ABC warned viewers of an episode's "adult content"). What are the chances the buzz would last if Ellen Morgan went from the First Gay Lead Character on Series Television to a quick-witted, rather jittery woman in her 30s who just happened to be gay?
So sex will be Topic A. What has Ellen to say about it? Not a great deal that's new, judging from this season's early episodes. But the show has a sly self-awareness that effectively disarms those who would accuse it of merely putting a gay gloss on stock hetero situations. Just when we were ready to dismiss one outing as an uninspired reprise of Three's Company—a prospective housemate thinks Ellen has a ménage à trois going with cousin Spence (Jeremy Piven) and friend Paige (Joely Fisher)—the episode acknowledged its origins with a funny cameo by Three's Company landlord Norman Fell. At the moment, Ellen is working on a romantic relationship with her mortgage broker Laurie (Lisa Darr). If her life grows too full to fit Spence, Paige and squeaky-voiced friend Audrey (Clea Lewis)—well, worse things could happen.