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IT SEEMS CLOSE TO INEVITABLE, AFTER weeks’ worth of speculation, that ABC’s Ellen will soon go gay. Recent episodes this season have been studded with clues, cuter than necessary, that bookstore manager Ellen Morgan, played by Ellen DeGeneres, will realize, announce or (who knows) be informed by some sexual deity that she is a lesbian. During one of Ellen’s typically unproductive sessions in therapy, for example, the doctor broached the topic of her client’s relationships with men. DeGeneres grinned in embarrassment and rolled her eyes. A week later, at a summer camp reunion, she and her friend Paige (Joely Fisher) embraced on a cot in a sisterly fashion that, so to speak, bordered on the incestuous. And now, says The Hollywood Reporter, there is talk that, some time after New Year’s, ABC will move the show from 8 p.m. to the less family-oriented 9:30 p.m. (ABC will not confirm the schedule change.)

Having a lesbian Ellen Morgan is a good idea, if only as a means of liberating DeGeneres from her show. A bright comedian who has coyly joked about rumors concerning her own sexuality, DeGeneres rattles off her lines with such neurotic energy that she practically reverberates. The rest of the cast isn’t up to her speed. Let’s get Ellen out of that bookstore and into the company of a woman who really knows how to work a joke. It wouldn’t have to be Sandra Bernhard.

As the central character in a sitcom, a lesbian Ellen would become the de facto leader of television’s small but not insignificant gay league. There are already more than 20 gay characters populating network shows, including Spin City’s mayoral aide Carter Heywood (Michael Boatman) and, of course, Melrose Place’s Matt (Doug Savant). In fact, Ellen includes two subsidiary gay characters, Peter and Barrett (Patrick Bristow and Jack Plotnick). Such telehomo-sexuals tend to be charming, gainfully employed and, as far as these things go, excellent role models. I just never get the feeling that they are sexually functioning adults. They seem less like flesh and blood than well-mannered guests tossing confetti at someone else’s party. As her series’ only reason for being, a gay Ellen will need a personal life that goes beyond mere lifestyle. It’s likely, at least, that she would date. But she would probably never, as ad buyer Paul Schulman observed in The New York Times, be seen in bed with a woman. Viewers and consequently advertisers might be alarmed. Once Ellen goes gay, how far gay can she go?