Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s entry looks at Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ first post-Seinfeld series, the fascinating Watching Ellie (2002-2003, NBC), which aired for two abbreviated seasons on the peacock network, marked the third time a Seinfeld co-star failed in a vehicle of his/her own, and furthered the narrative of the “Seinfeld Curse” — the belief that the four players on the stratospheric hit were so closely associated with their iconic characters that success in another TV role would be impossible. It’s a theory not confined to Seinfeld (just ask Tina Louise), but for all hit series, as the nature of television involves an intimacy between character and audience that’s only enhanced by longevity. However, oftentimes this notion of “typecasting” becomes a crutch that performers and commentators use to keep themselves from having to examine the critical merits of an actual work. Let’s go beyond this hex idea and examine these post-Seinfeld shows on their own terms…
Watching Ellie is a more watchable show — and more conducive to discussion — than either The Michael Richards Show, which set itself up for failure with its rotten premise, and Bob Patterson, which was crafted in a way that made organic character-driven comedy difficult. Now, this series also suffers both from its premise and its utilization of character within story, but this time around, we’re more inwardly drawn to the series and committed to finding its strengths, through which we can perhaps derive a genuine enjoyment. There are three primary reasons that when watching Ellie today, we tend to be more forgiving than we are with the two flops prior. First, because the onus of a “Seinfeld Curse” shrouded the series’ development and reception (even with critics who were fair-minded), we desperately want to give the show an honest chance, especially because it’s clearly trying to be different than Seinfeld, and thus deserves a separate benchmark. Second, Louis-Dreyfus has proven herself to be the first one to “break” the aforementioned curse, and given what we know of her future successes, we’re more apt to seek triumphs in her work that proved unsuccessful, because we know of what she’s capable. And lastly, Watching Ellie arouses our interest, simply, because of its unique premise.
Here’s the concept (as it originally premiered on NBC) established by series creator (and the leading lady’s real life husband) Brad Hall (Saturday Night Live, Brooklyn Bridge, The Single Guy): every week, viewers are treated to a 22-minute slice of uninterrupted life (save the commercial breaks, which halt the action but don’t disrupt it) of L.A. cabaret singer Ellie Riggs (Louis-Dreyfus), who is having an affair with her married guitarist, Ben (Darren Boyd). Other characters in Ellie’s life include her more put-together sister Susan (Lauren Bowles — Dreyfus’ half-sister), her obnoxious ex-boyfriend Edgar (Steve Carell), her smitten neighbor Ingvar (Peter Stormare), and quirky veterinarian Dr. Zimmerman (Don Lake), who also lives in the building. The show, for which the couple negotiated reduced episodic orders (15 per year maximum — then a rarity), was shot single-camera and without an audience, using a running clock in the lower lefthand corner of the screen to make its point about the real-time nature of the premise. Writers for the series included Joe Furey (Late Night With David Letterman, NewsRadio, The Soul Man) and Jack Burditt (Mad About You, Just Shoot Me!, The New Adventures Of Old Christine, 30 Rock, Last Man Standing, The Mindy Project, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). So the series had a couple of particular talents behind it — specifically Burditt, Carell, and Louis-Dreyfus — making it inherently worthy of a closer look today. But there were still significant issues.
Let’s start with the obvious: the premise is a gimmick. Just because some (like myself) appreciate and have often championed the conceit of real-time storytelling in the situation comedy, because it forces a show to employ a unity of time (and often place) in which characters are usually pushed into the forefront, doesn’t mean we can ignore when said conceit is used as an ostentatious distraction from a show’s players and how they can be used to drive both comedy and story. You see, this is where Watching Ellie most hurts itself, for in the desire to be different (like Seinfeld did), it puts the bulk of its attention into an idea that sounds really cool, but serves no purpose, and can be, in fact, destructive without the support that every single series — comedy, drama, scripted, non-scripted, you name it — needs: well-drawn characters. This weakness is made more glaring, for in the show’s obsession with its 22-minute premise, the scripts force all story ideas to conform within these set limitations, and because story is the focused exploration of character (remember: story serves character, not the other way around), the already definition-needing regulars become more restricted themselves. Most troubling is the lack of understanding afforded to our heroine, as Watching Ellie seems hesitant to portray its protagonist as anyone close to Elaine Benes, which leads to underwriting her personality on the page — foolishly using the stories and the narrative givens (married boyfriend, goofy ex) to fill in her design. The result, of course, is that Ellie seems to have no character.
The gimmicky premise-based nature of the series also throws off the dynamic of the ensemble, and is made worse by the half-baked construction of its cast, which despite boasting some talented performers, fails to yield interesting, nuanced relationships (which could help bolster and establish their individual characterizations). Least rewarding is the heroine’s prime romance with her guitarist, which mitigates humor in favor of some 21st century “moral ambiguity” that doesn’t end up creating workable humor or genuine pathos — just a stinky story construct. Audiences and critics in spring 2002, when the first season premiered (on Tuesdays at 8:30), correctly identified the problems with the real-time premise, but seemed to fixate on the wrong fixes. Their concerns about the 22-minute limitations were hinged entirely on the mere presence of the ticking clock in the corner, which made every episode feel more like a product than a work of entertainment. Variety even specifically advised the series to lose the clock — which it did, starting with the eighth aired episode. But trying to fool the audience into ignoring the narratively still-employed gimmick by only removing its visible confirmation wasn’t going to do anything to fix the problems that the series was having with the gimmick itself. After two more episodes (for a total of ten), the first season concluded, leaving three entries unaired. Ratings had already cut in half. If Watching Ellie was to have a future, changes were in order.
With a desire to remain in the Louis-Dreyfus business, NBC ordered a second season, but “encouraged” Hall to drop the real-time construct and switch from a single-camera setup (which was not in vogue on network television at the time) to a multi-camera one. He agreed reluctantly, and the show pressed forward with the same cast (minus Stormare, who did one guest appearance but was no longer a regular) for a six-episode second season that premiered in spring 2003. In this new format, Watching Ellie became a more traditional-looking series, and the clichéd “adult” sentimentality of Ellie’s feelings for both her ex and her married beau was dropped entirely. (In fact, the season premiere officially split up Ellie and Ben and made them just friends.) Also, the second season broadened creative trends that had been brewing at the end of the first year, as Elaine began to creep into Ellie’s characterization, turning her into more of a misanthropic loser, while Steve Carell, who proved to be the funniest presence (next to Louis-Dreyfus) in Season One, saw an elevation in his usage — getting more to do in the weekly stories than Ben. But, despite our heroine and her cast thriving from the live audience (like most casts would), there was nothing new or original in the material; frankly, from certain angles, this looks like an unevolved The New Adventure Of Old Christine — and even in these six episodes, the over reliance on non-character-based stories (there’s one where they go on Family Feud; yes, really!) proves that there was little creative juice in this revamped version.
Obviously, because the first season of Watching Ellie had proved unfavorable, if NBC wanted to continue on with its leading lady, then it needed to disassociate itself entirely from the original show. In other words, they either needed to stay committed to Watching Ellie as it was originally conceived (and focus on how to make the premise actually work), or they needed to find a new property, for the old one was tainted. Personally, as a proponent of the real-time construct, I would have preferred to see the show try to work with its original theme, for I think that it was not only a fresh and original draw, but it was one that could have been put to good use, if a cultivated ensemble could have assumed its rightful prominence. The problem regarding the application of the premise — aside from the character (and ensemble construction) issues already discussed — is that there was no good reason to make this show the 22 minute “slice of life.” That is, why, but for some writers and producers who think they have a great idea, does Ellie Riggs’ life make her subject to these “slices”? The magnificence of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who can disguise character shortcomings and easily attract crowds to good material, isn’t enough of a justification for the knowingly high-construct premise. To wit: Jerry Seinfeld’s show began focused on the low-concept, triviality of everyday occurrences because that was the subject of his stand-up… but there was nothing in Ellie Riggs’ life that explained why time was a particularly important lens through which we should view her life. And that’s a big reason why I think viewers couldn’t ever connect — regardless of script or star quality.
At the time, NBC was also wary of the single-camera design, which 15 years later, strikes us as comical, for just three years after Watching Ellie premiered, one of its stars would appear — for the very same network — on a sitcom that would mainstream the single-cam and launch a trend that’s yet to be broken. In this regard, one might be tempted to claim that Watching Ellie was “ahead of its time” and could have found greater success in today’s climate. I think there’s some truth here, for the cinematic design of the single-camera aesthetic, coupled with the high-concept construct (real-time is usually theatrically applied, but isn’t here, which therefore makes it seem fresh) has it feeling closer to so much of what we’re seeing today. (Note: ABC flirted with its own real-time comedy in 2005 with Jake In Progress, before neutering it in development.) And, of course, any show that boasted Julia Louis-Dreyfus alongside Steve Carell would be considered a major comedic contender — again, regardless of the quality of the scripts. But, as always, we inevitably do come down to the quality of those scripts, which still, mostly because of the subordination of character for premise, never realize their full comedic potentials — ensuring that the series never goes from “fascinating flop” to “brilliant but cancelled.” However, to end on a generous note, I think this series was actually vital in breaking the “Seinfeld Curse,” for it showed audiences that Louis-Dreyfus, even in mediocrity, deserved more success, which further motivated viewers and critics to abandon these constrictive curse notions in time for The New Adventures Of Old Christine (2006-2010, CBS), which could play to Louis-Dreyfus’ multi-cam strengths, reinforced by Watching Ellie‘s second year, without having to distance its style from Seinfeld‘s, which the first season of Watching Ellie consciously had to do.
So, having seen all 16 aired episodes, I intended to share a list of favorites in this post. And I suppose, if I wanted to, I could. I’d highlight the first two episodes of the series, which best show off the real-time format, and then the last four episodes of the first season, which are the most comedically poised. (I’m not sure what I’d suggest as the best from the second season — maybe a series of brief moments, as no single episode shines.) But, instead, I want to share a full episode: the outing that, I think, best represents the series’ potential — the “Pilot,” which aired on February 26, 2002, was written by Brad Hall, and directed by Ken Kwapis (The Larry Sanders Show, Malcolm In The Middle, The Office). The characterizations aren’t set (although, they never are), but the premise is used most effortlessly and there are smiles to be had along the way.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! (We’ll be looking at Listen Up!) And tune in on Tuesday for more Seinfeld!
I remember this show when it aired and enjoyed the episodes I saw on YouTube recently. I enjoyed the gimmick enough both times to completely overlook the character development (or lack thereof) — which was an interesting take on the show that I never thought of.
Hi, TV Talking Heads! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I subscribe to the school of sitcom theory that finds character the only sustainable source of narrative and comedy in a serialized work. Both of the prior two shows in this series — THE MICHAEL RICHARDS SHOW and BOB PATTERSON — suffered on this front; stay tuned next week to find out my thoughts on LISTEN UP!
I agree. Some of the best sitcoms were so character-driven that the first scene could take up most of the first act and still be entertaining.
Indeed. As in all fiction, most consumers come for the story — but stay for the characters. I think it’s especially true in television.
I wish the broadcast networks would remember this. Instead, they’re focused on high concepts and unsustainable premises.
Well, it’s always easier said than done!
“The problem regarding the application of the premise […] is that there was no good reason to make this show the 22 minute “slice of life.” That is, why, but for some writers and producers who think they have a great idea, does Ellie Riggs’ life make her subject to these “slices”?”
Which sums up (very well, I might add) the problem *I* had “watching Ellie” back when the show was on the air. What were so darn special about that week’s 22 minutes in the life of Ellie Riggs, when nothing about the unfolding story or her life in general suggested that whatever we were watching was all that extraordinary.
Hi, Rashad! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think Ellie’s life didn’t need to be much more extraordinary than ours, but when utilizing a high-concept premise, or in this case, a high-construct premise, I think there simply needs to be some explanation as to why the show is structured in the way it is — lest the gimmick appear extra gimmicky. For instance, 24’s design was motivated by its annual jeopardy, so although real-time was used as a hook, it was actually justified within each episode’s narrative. WATCHING ELLIE never explained why its stories were told in this manner, which made emotional investment more challenging, for this came across as sheer script-manipulation. (Incidentally, I feel the same way about LIFE IN PIECES’ structure, but because the show seems, for many, to do a better job of meeting its super-objective, these concerns have less weight.)
Hi, Jackson, I just found your old posting about Du Barry was a Lady – terrific. I saw a delightful production of it in New York a couple of months ago and I am hoping you can still send links to the recordings you mentioned, especially the 2001 BBC broadcast. Many thanks.
Hi, Linda! Thanks for reading and commenting. I have emailed you at your rogers address.
I am always happy to share with subscribers. However, in the future, just be sure to comment on the corresponding individual post, so that I can keep track of requests. As with every article (old or new), you can leave comments at the bottom of the page. For your reference, the DU BARRY WAS A LADY (1939) entry is here: http://jacksonupperco.com/2014/06/23/d-is-for-du-barry-was-a-lady-1939/