This is the question people keep asking: Is "Watching Ellie," the new NBC sitcom starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as bad as "The Michael Richards Show" or Jason Alexander's "Bob Patterson"? No, it's not.
But don't take that as a rave review of this third - fourth, if you count Patrick Warburton in "The Tick" - series to star a former "Seinfeld" cast member. "Watching Ellie" (8:30 p.m. EST Tuesday, NBC) tries really, really hard to be different, not run-of-the-mill, and the strain shows.
Louis-Dreyfus stars as Ellie Riggs, a singer whose life is revealed to viewers in 22-minute increments. The difference between any other half-hour comedy and "Watching Ellie" is that "Ellie" takes place in real time, meaning viewers see every minute of a particular 22 minutes in her life, even the stuff that's expendable, like walking down three flights of stairs.
There's a countdown clock in the corner of the screen showing viewers how much remains for them to endure, er, watch. It's most useful at the end of the episode when Ellie starts to sing.
Yes, there's singing. Worse yet, lounge singing. And that gets to the show's other weird vibe. You can't shake the feeling that "Watching Ellie" is the most vain vanity project to hit TV in recent years.
Louis-Dreyfus is the show's star and producer. Her husband, Brad Hall, is the writer and executive producer. Her real-life sister, actress Lauren Bowles, plays her sister. It's filmed in the expensive single-camera style, without a laugh track. As is done with HBO series, they plan to make only about a dozen episodes a season, not the usual 22.
Louis-Dreyfus runs around in only a bra for a scene, showing off her breasts, and she's managed to cast someone 10 years her junior, British actor Darren Boyd, as her boyfriend.
It's as if Louis-Dreyfus has been given keys to the candy cupboard, and, at this rate, she's soon going to be on a sugar high.
Is this NBC's way of combating the alleged "Seinfeld" curse? Let Louis-Dreyfus do anything she wants, so if the show fails, executives can point the finger at her? (Or, if it succeeds, they can claim their hands-off approach yielded a gem?)
Issues of perception aside, "Watching Ellie" is not a laugh-out-loud funny show, but it can be sly and amusing. Its humor is rooted in observing the weird characters that come in and out of Ellie's life and the odd everyday travails she encounters.
In Tuesday's premiere, Ellie's toilet overflows, so viewers get to see her shimmying across the floor, towels under her feet, trying to absorb as much water as possible. She enlists the aid of besotted neighbor Ingvar (Peter Stormare), who gets into trouble, which requires her to call on another neighbor in her Los Angeles apartment building, Dr. Zimmerman (Don Lake).
When Ellie finds Dr. Zimmerman, he's in his shower, but he leaps out to help her and runs down the apartment building hallway without ever thinking to wrap a towel around his waist. Such blithe nudity screams, "Character!" It also screams, "Unreal TV-only moment!"
The funniest scenes in Tuesday's "Watching Ellie" come in the first 15 minutes. After she leaves the apartment and encounters ex-boyfriend Edgar (Steve Carell) - a particularly droll scene - the show begins a downward trajectory.
In part, it's the singing at the end of the episode. Louis-Dreyfus is a fine singer, but an actress crooning ballads just isn't what viewers bargain for when they tune to a TV comedy. It's not funny.
More troublesome, however, is a revelation about Ellie Riggs that will make her a less likable character in the eyes of some viewers, myself included.
The "Seinfeld" characters all had negative personality traits, but viewers came to realize these flaws over time. Once we knew the characters, it was OK for them to display greed, arrogance and sloth. To reveal such indiscretions early on is a dangerous game.
Though I'm not clamoring to see future episodes of "Watching Ellie," I'm not ready to write the show off either. Louis-Dreyfus can be quite funny, and she's surrounded herself with a capable cast (especially Stormare, Lake and Carell). The show could improve, or it could die under the weight of artistic pretension. For anyone curious about the outcome of this bizarre science project, "Watching Ellie" bears watching.
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