- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

Julia Louis-Dreyfus returns to prime time television next week in "Watching Ellie," an inventive and genuinely funny comedy about a frazzled single gal who never has enough time on her hands.
Miss Louis-Dreyfus' new alter ego, Los Angeles lounge singer Eleanor "Ellie" Riggs, is a lot like Elaine Benes, the character she played on "Seinfeld" for nine seasons. Both women have spunk to spare, and both have a knack for attracting oddball men.
But we're not going to dwell on Ellie's shiksappeal.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
It's just that "Watching Ellie" is so good and so original that comparing it to Miss Louis-Dreyfus' previous show seems unfair. Her new effort stands up just fine on its own, thank you very much.
The gimmick of "Watching Ellie" is that it takes place in real time. Each 22-minute episode the running time of a sitcom without commercials is essentially a snapshot from a day in Ellie's life. A clock in the left-hand corner of the screen even counts down the minutes of each episode, freezing only before the commercial breaks.
The first episode, airing at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on NBC (WRC-TV, Channel 4), finds Ellie running late for work because of a phone call from her gabby younger sister, an overflowing toilet in her apartment and a chance meeting with Edgar, her know-it-all ex-boyfriend.
This is the first time Ellie and Edgar have seen each other since their breakup. The awkward encounter becomes all the more uncomfortable when Edgar "uninvites" Ellie to his upcoming birthday party.
"You know, Edgar is an awful name. Yeah, it is. It's a bad guy name. Edga-a-ar. There has never been a good guy named Edgar," she rails in retaliation.
The episode also introduces viewers to Ellie's love-struck neighbor Ingvar, a loopy Swede who hasn't mastered English, and her new beau, Ben, a stubble-faced Brit who also plays the guitar in her band.
It is a topnotch cast. Steve Carell, one of the smart-aleck correspondents from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," plays the obnoxious Edgar, and Peter Stormare, the menacing kidnapper from "Fargo," is Ingvar.
Newcomer Darren Boyd plays the smoldering Ben. Miss Louis-Dreyfus' real-life younger sister, Lauren Bowles, is cast as Ellie's attention-starved sister, Susan.
But make no mistake: Miss Louis-Dreyfus is the star of this show. She appears in virtually every scene, and she even gets to sing once or twice in each episode. She has never looked or sounded better.
Surprisingly, the real-time format doesn't rob "Watching Ellie" of its ability to develop Ellie and the supporting characters. In fact, it makes the storytelling very efficient.
The producers don't have to contend with the typical sitcom conventions of story exposition and denouement. The action begins the moment the clock in the corner of the screen starts ticking and doesn't stop until time runs out for Ellie and friends.
The second episode, airing March 5, makes even better use of real time than the pilot.
It finds Ellie and her band preparing to sing at her friend's wedding. She panics when she realizes she has left the sheet music in the front seat of Ben's car, then spends the rest of the show scrambling to retrieve it. These slapstick scenes firmly establish Miss Louis-Dreyfus as a physical comedian.
"Watching Ellie" is unusual for network television because it doesn't have a studio audience or laugh track. It's also filmed with a single camera (most sitcoms use four), which lends an intimate feel to the show.
In fact, "Watching Ellie" looks like one of those smart HBO comedies. It would fit well on that network, already home to "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the holy trinity of great television.
Frankly, that's a little worrisome. Shows such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" have thrived on cable because the threshold for what constitutes a hit is lower than on broadcast television, which aims for the masses.
Will enough people want to watch Ellie to keep her on NBC's schedule?
Miss Louis-Dreyfus and husband Brad Hall, who created and executive-produces "Watching Ellie," seem focused only on putting on a good show.
The couple have vowed to produce only 15 episodes of "Watching Ellie" a season so they can have more time to develop the stories and characters. Most sitcoms produce 22 or 24 episodes a year.
Their restraint is not only admirable, but also represents a huge financial gamble. TV sitcoms usually don't make money until 100 episodes have been produced, the magic number needed to go into syndication. "Watching Ellie" will need at least seven seasons to reach the 100-episode mark.
Also, because "Watching Ellie" is filmed with only one camera, it requires more days of shooting, which makes the show even more expensive than traditional sitcoms.
Let's hope the financial gamble pays off. "Watching Ellie" is simply the best comedy of the season, a creative triumph that is worthy of all the hype and promotion NBC gave it during the Winter Olympics. It deserves to succeed.

***
WHAT: "Watching Ellie"
WHERE: NBC (WRC-TV, Channel 4)
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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