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TV Review: NBC's retooled 'Ellie' vastly more watchable

Monday, April 14, 2003

Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

An NBC press release promises "Americans can resume 'Watching Ellie.' " The question is: Will they want to?

Low-rated in its first season, "Watching Ellie" was met with mixed critical reviews and a collective shrug from the public. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was back, but viewers still seemed more interested in watching her as Elaine on "Seinfeld" reruns.

Returning tomorrow at 9:30 p.m. for six weeks, the new "Watching Ellie" is indeed improved. It's funnier, better paced and doesn't try so hard to be different. This works out for the better.

The first season of "Watching Ellie" came complete with a real-time element (or gimmick, depending on how you viewed it). Each episode took place in 22 minutes of real time as a countdown clock kept track of the time remaining in a corner of the screen.

Last year the series was shot single-camera style, similar to Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle" or HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," without a studio audience or laugh track.

Sometimes trying to be different is refreshing. In the case of "Watching Ellie," it was a strained affectation.

"Watching Ellie" returns with the real-time element gone, and the show is now filmed mostly in front of a studio audience (some single-camera work remains in scenes shot outdoors and on location).

In a teleconference with reporters last week, Louis-Dreyfus said it was NBC's idea to drop the clock and her desire to bring in an audience.

"I was very much missing it," she said of the studio audience. "When you get a studio audience, you're inclined to do it just broader. There's a little goofier element to the show. Last year there was a softer quality to the show, that I think works when you're doing single-camera. When you get into multi-camera [and in front of an audience], the pace and energy have to come up."

Louis-Dreyfus said dropping the real-time element didn't bother her, and it opens up Ellie's world and allows for more diversity in story-telling without a formula. She does point out tomorrow's season premiere actually is in real time, but it's not noticeable.

The episode features Ellie recounting her troubles to her psychologist and then flashes back to reveal a change in the relationship between her and boyfriend Ben (Darren Boyd), who was married when they started dating.

"If he would cheat with me, why wouldn't he cheat on me?" Ellie tells the shrink.

From there, disparate story lines coalesce in an ending worthy of "Seinfeld."

Ellie's singing doesn't come off as Louis-Dreyfus' vanity as much as it did last season, particularly in a future episode where Ellie's performance at a subway station is mined for laughs.

The show's supporting cast continues to be game for all the antics the writers throw at them, particularly Steve Carell ("The Daily Show") as Ellie's annoying ex-boyfriend, Edgar. But it's Ellie's sister, Susan (Lauren Bowles, Louis-Dreyfus' real-life sister), who gets the funniest exchange with Ellie in tomorrow's premiere.

"This is so good, it's like an 'I Love Lucy' episode," Susan says of Ellie's latest predicament. Ellie objects to the TV comparison.

"That's my reference point," Susan says. "Right now we're in a 'Frasier' episode, except we're sisters and we don't live in Seattle."

"And we're not gay," Ellie adds.

Peter Stormare, who played Ellie's apartment building manager last year, appears in only one episode this season (he was filming a movie that conflicted with "Ellie's" production schedule). And Don Lake, who plays neighbor and veterinarian Dr. Zimmerman, is missing from a few episodes due to his work as writer and executive producer on ABC's "Life With Bonnie."

"Ellie" returns with only six new episodes to prove itself, but NBC has enough confidence in the show to air some of those during the May sweeps period. Should it succeed, the network also has several leftover episodes from last season in the show's original format that Louis-Dreyfus said she'd want to add a laugh track to before they air.

Whether or not "Ellie" survives to sing another song next season, Louis-Dreyfus said she doesn't believe in the so-called "Seinfeld curse" that doomed sitcoms starring her former co-stars, Michael Richards and Jason Alexander.

"It's a made-up thing by the media," she said. "But there is the curse of show business. You're always going uphill. When you're in the entertainment business, even if you've had success, to have success again is daunting. If you haven't had success, to have success is daunting. It's just a hard business to be in."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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