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Tuned In: Louis-Dreyfus calls her show an artistic challenge

Thursday, January 10, 2002

By Rob Owen Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- She sings. Her husband is the executive producer. She's cast her sister as her sister. And she has to make only 15 episodes a year. Clearly, the success of "Seinfeld" has given Julia Louis-Dreyfus clout.

But that kind of power doesn't always translate into ratings. Witness the disasters that were "The Michael Richards Show" and Jason Alexander's "Bob Patterson." Yet Louis-Dreyfus is willing to give it a shot anyway with "Watching Ellie," a half-hour, single-camera, no-studio-audience or laugh-track comedy series.

Louis-Dreyfus stars as Eleanor Riggs, a single Los Angeles singer (in lounges, for commercial jingles, etc.) whose life is presented each week in 22 minutes that pass in real time. There's even a clock in the lower left-hand corner of the screen to prove it.

Riggs is surrounded by some oddball characters, including a veterinarian neighbor (Don Lake) and apartment building maintenance man (Peter Stormare). She runs into her ex-boyfriend (Steve Carell), hangs out with her younger sister (Lauren Bowles, Louis-Dreyfus 'real-life younger sister) and is in a relationship with the guitarist (Darren Boyd) for her band.

" 'Seinfeld' was a very happy, joyful experience for me," Louis-Dreyfus said. "This, from an artistic point of view, is a challenge. It's a little different, I'm able to sing, I'm able to be a little more real and play a character you really get to know intimately over a period of time. It just felt correct. I'm going by my gut."

Louis-Dreyfus's husband, Brad Hall ("The Single Guy"), is the executive producer and a writer on "Watching Ellie." He said the real-time element is key to the show.

"It's a good way to reveal the character in an intimate fashion," Hall said. "When you follow the character, it's this connective tissue, things that are usually cut out of shows, like someone alone in a room. In this form, there's a lot of comedy and character stuff we'll get to see by virtue of being with her all the time. The time clock lets you get closer to her by allowing you to stay with her when the instinct would be to cut away. That's why I think it feels more intimate."

Despite the failures of shows by other "Seinfeld" stars, NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker said he doesn't believe in a "Seinfeld" curse.

"Nine out of 10 programs fail," Zucker said. "Those were just two programs. We've got a terrific star with a terrific concept."

Louis-Dreyfus agrees.

"There's pressure regardless of the past success or failure of any of my friends," she said. "I want this show to be good. Jason and Michael are very good friends of mine. They're such amazingly talented people. ... It's hard to do anything well, whether it's in television in film or making a car. It's hard to make things good, period. It's something I'm keenly aware of. Of course I want this show to be a success, but I really want to enjoy the process, to tell you the truth."

"Watching Ellie," which will air at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays beginning Feb. 26, will have "Frasier" reruns as a lead-in. Louis-Dreyfus said she was relieved the series didn't get a Thursday night time slot.

"I like the idea of being as under-the-radar as possible," she said. "That's why I wanted to be at midseason. ... It's a smart approach and it feels correct -- as I talk to 100 people."

"Don't tell anybody about the program," Hall jokingly added.

No 'Call'

"Last Call With Carson Daly" (1:37 a.m. weekdays) failed to have its scheduled first call late night Monday.

"We did have some issues with his contract, but they were resolved yesterday," NBC's Zucker said.

NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa acknowledged NBC made a mistake in not getting a signed contract from Daly before the scheduled premiere.

"Last Call" premiered one day late, airing after midnight Tuesday.

NBC's near future

NBC has renewed three freshman series for a second season to begin next fall: "Scrubs," "Crossing Jordan" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." The daytime soap "Passions" also got the nod for a fourth year.

But the multimillion dollar question is whether this will be the final season for "Friends." Executives said they don't have an answer yet and wouldn't place odds on whether the show's stars will commit to another year or more.

"I don't think we can convince them of anything," Sassa said. "In its eighth season, the show is creatively having a renaissance. This is different than before when they were making some money and then they got a lot of money. It's a decision for them. It's not a negotiation. The question is, do they want to do the show?"

Zucker said getting "Friends" renewed is NBC's top priority.

"We're in discussions and they have to make a decision," he said. "We would love them to come back, we want them to come back and we hope they do."

Zucker announced four drama series will air nothing but original episodes through the end of the season in May: "Providence," "Third Watch," "Ed" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." In order to run them straight through without reruns, each show will be pre-empted on several occasions. Though ratings for "Ed" have not measured up to those for "West Wing" and the original "Law & Order," Zucker said he's confident "Ed" will return for a third season.

Midseason series

The odious "Imagine That" premiered this week to disappointing ratings and summer hit "Fear Factor" returned to the schedule. Other upcoming midseason series airing on NBC include:

"Watching Ellie" (8:30 p.m. Tuesday, premiering Feb. 26): Well, it's better than "The Michael Richards Show" and Jason Alexander's "Bob Patterson." That's faint praise, but the first episode of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' new series is more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. It has a real-time element that seems superfluous, but "Ellie" at least tries to be different.

"Leap of Faith" (8:30 p.m. Thursday, premiering Feb. 28): Sarah Paulson stars as a thirtysomething woman who cancels her wedding and re-enters the dating scene. Filmed single-camera style ("Scrubs," "Malcolm in the Middle"), "Leap of Faith" has no laugh track. Not available for review.

"New York Live With Colin Quinn" (premiere date not announced): A live variety show featuring the former "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update anchor, who will deliver a monologue, participate in comedy sketches and welcome stand-up comedies. Not available for review.


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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