The first television season of Ellen was actually called These Friends of Mine, and while the series sought to define itself through various tones and shades of comedy, the best episodes captured a middle ground between Seinfeld and Friends. Ellen DeGeneres is both a brilliant centerpiece and generous ensemble player, constantly finding fresh ways to mine laughs from her ever-rambling, guilt-ridden, and perpetually dissatisfied heroine. As Ellen Morgan, bookstore employee and platonic roommate of semi-loser Adam (Arye Gross), DeGeneres finds plenty of opportunity to explore humiliation. In the pilot episode, Ellen's unhappiness with her bad photo on a driver's license prompts an obsessive (and unsuccessful) quest to beautify her ID. "The Promotion" finds Ellen and her posse (besides Gross, costars in these first 13 programs include Maggie Wheeler and Holly Fulger) trying to figure out how to bribe Ellen's boss into giving her a job boost, a futile adventure that ends (don't ask how) in a bad way at the Mexican border.
Among the best episodes is the Seinfeld-ian "The Mugging," starring Mariska Hargitay as a gorgeous woman mugged on her way to Adam and Ellen's front door. A cowardly Adam saw the crime and not only fails to help, he won't admit being an eyewitness lest he lose his shot at romancing the victim. Along those same black-comedy lines, "The Anchor" finds Ellen neurotically pursuing a friendship with a woman she can't stand, simply because the latter heard Ellen speaking badly of her. The 13 shows in this set are presented out of season one's chronological order, but that makes little difference to the best material here. --Tom Keogh