In going home, series' heroines cover well-trod ground Ellen DeGeneres returns in a new sitcom, and a former "Law & Order" star gets her own drama.

Posted: September 24, 2001

A couple of our TV gal pals return to the tube tonight in new series that play to their strengths, but that are nothing to write home about. Neither of their characters needs to write home, since both wind up there, following the old prodigal-child-returns format that has been popular for about 5,000 years.

The reason the format's back on TV this year is that it was successful last year, in the guise of Ed, the bowling alley lawyer, on NBC.

Tonight's new series are pleasantly watchable, but neither has a shard of the originality that makes Ed distinctive.

Ellen DeGeneres plays Ellen Richmond on The Ellen Show, which shouldn't be too confusing. It gets a special post-Everybody Loves Raymond premiere at 9:30 before moving to its regular slot Friday at 8 p.m.

Over on NBC, Law & Order's Jill Hennessy toddles back to Boston and picks up in the medical examiner's office where she was such a problem a few years before. Her show, Crossing Jordan, premieres at 10 p.m.

Ellen's a gay old thing who returns from dot-com millionairesville on the West Coast to Clark, U.S.A., which is somewhere in the heartland, just down the street from the sitcom retirement home. Cloris Leachman, Martin Mull and Jim Gaffigan costar as Ellen's mom, former teacher and prom date, respectively.

Diane Delano plays the gay gym teacher who's hot for Ellen, as is Gaffigan, who hasn't quite figured it all out yet.

Sexuality is just one of the funny fields that get plowed with DeGeneres' quick wit and throwaway humor. Ellen has a dippy sister, too. She has trouble with men. The last one, she recounts, took their mom for $3,000.

"Oh, well," says Ellen, ever trying to be cheerful, "it could have been worse."

"It was," says the sister. "It was $4,000."

Similar stuff goes by, over and over, in the hands of an eminently competent cast that seems content to do no heavy lifting.

Hennessy's Crossing Jordan, however, has lifted from every series imaginable.

She's a curly-haired beauty who heads home to New England (Providence, Judging Amy) to resume her gig as a feisty, crime-solving medical examiner (Quincy) in an office where they do lots of science on dead people (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation). Her boss, played by Miguel Ferrer, drives a Citroen, perhaps the only French auto more obscure than Lt. Columbo's Peugeot.

Jordan solves crimes with the help of her ex-cop poppa (Cagney & Lacey), who's played by Ken Howard, who was so wonderful in The White Shadow, which is one of the few past TV series that seems to have nothing to do with this one.

The producers are stressing Hennessy's sex appeal. She spends most of the second episode in this clingy little top that's forever riding up or pulling down to reveal new vistas.

The continuity guy was so agog that he forgot his job, and the shirt constantly changes positions in mid-scene.

At least that gives the show one new TV gimmick.

Jonathan Storm's e-mail address is jstorm@phillynews.com.

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