Barely amusing as time goes by

Preview: With `Watching Ellie,' Julia Louis-Dreyfus is betting there's no post-`Seinfeld' curse. She loses.

February 26, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Watching Ellie, the new Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom that premieres on NBC tonight, should be titled Watching That Stupid Little Timer in the Lower Left-hand Corner of the TV Screen Tick Down From 22 Minutes.

In a misguided effort to make this series about a Los Angeles nightclub singer named Ellie Riggs (Louis-Dreyfus) feel different from standard network sitcom reality, executive producer Brad Hall - the star's husband - has a timer onscreen ticking down from 22 minutes, the running time of a half-hour sitcom minus commercials.

I watched the pilot three times, thinking I'd get used to the timer. But each time, I found myself looking at the timer more than I did at Ellie. And, I'll tell you something: for the first half of the pilot, I liked the timer a lot more than her. And I'll tell you something else: the timer is only one of several things I hate about the pilot.

But before the rant, let me also say Watching Ellie is not a bomb, unlike Bob Patterson and The Michael Richards Show, failed sitcoms from Louis-Dreyfus' ex-Seinfeld colleagues. As much fun as it might be for some to believe there is a no-life-after-Seinfeld curse on these folks, Watching Ellie climbs up off the embalmer's table near the end of tonight's pilot. It shows a pulse, if not an actual heartbeat.

What I hate most is the voyeurism suggested by the title of the series. The camera literally puts us in the position of a Peeping Tom as we watch Ellie put on her makeup and get dressed to go to work as a singer. And for the first third of the show, she's in a dressing gown showing so much cleavage that one of her male neighbors says, "Wow, that's some breasts."

I guess, this is just in case us rubes out in TV Land didn't appreciate what we were seeing. Or, maybe, this is a failed attempt to make the show seem more like the series that air on HBO - series such as Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm that comment on themselves and in so doing, deconstruct sitcom reality.

Like most Hollywood films and television programs, this one is told from the point of view of a male gazing at the female object of his desire, and I can't wait to see what the feminist critics will make of this bit of exhibitionism by Louis-Dreyfus.

Ellie as object of desire is supposed to be balanced by Ellie-to-whom-stuff-happens. Tonight, the toilet in her apartment overflows as she's rushing to get to the nightclub. Before the flooding stops, the population of her bathroom includes Ellie, a Scandinavian building superintendent with a gash on his head and a crush on his tenant, and a veterinarian wearing only a towel around his waist. Don't ask. What matters about the scene is that Louis-Dreyfus isn't nearly as good a physical comedian as the producers seem to think she is.

What she does well are one-on-one scenes with men, especially men with whom she has been involved in a relationship. Once the sitcom gets her out of her apartment building and onto the street, where she bumps into an ex-boyfriend (Steve Carell), it starts to pick up. That's with 9 minutes and 47 seconds left, by the way.

When she gets to the nightclub late, and gets locked into a backstage conversation with the man she is now seeing (Darren Boyd), it almost starts to click. That's with 6 minutes and 1 second left.

I'll say no more, because that would give away one of the only mildly clever surprises in the 22 minutes. It comes with 2 minutes and 23 seconds left. (Actually, the little timer on the screen was between 23 and 22 seconds when it happened.)

Hey, I know what this sitcom is missing: A tenths-of-a-second display on the timer.

Premiere

What: Watching Ellie

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

When: Tonight at 8:30

In brief: Timing is almost everything here, and that's a bad thing.

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