'Seinfeld' curse?

EntertainmentTelevisionTelevision IndustrySeinfeld (tv program)Julia Louis-DreyfusMichael Richards

If seeing the words "Watching" and "Ellie" together yet again don't make you recoil like a dog from the hand of its abusive master, then you probably also have no idea what "skeleton" is or why it's OK to spell "Apollo" with only one 'l.'

With promotions for "Watching Ellie" more frequent than Bob Costas' turtleneck changes, NBC did its best to light the post-Olympic torch for this new series that brings Julia Louis-Dreyfus back to the network's comedy lineup and attempts to overcome the "Seinfeld" curse.

The actress formerly known as Elaine and now, in a stretch, as Ellie is not playing a ski jumper, a bobsledder or whatever other faux-Olympic tableaux the ever-shilling network stuck her in. She's a harried single singer, pratfalling around L.A.

And there is, at least, this to be said about "Watching Ellie," which debuts at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (WMAQ-Ch. 5). It is, hands down, the best of the "Seinfeld" stars' afterlife projects. Next to the quickly canceled "The Michael Richards Show" and Jason Alexander's "Bob Patterson," "Watching Ellie" looks like "The Simpsons."

It's when it gets put next to "The Simpsons" - or even a serviceable comedy like "Just Shoot Me" - that "Ellie" gets into trouble.

The show certainly is not misrepresenting itself in being billed as a Julia Louis-Dreyfus project. Created by her apparently adoring husband Brad Hall (also responsible, never forget, for "The Single Guy"), this is a comedy that wants to make you intimately familiar with Louis-Dreyfus, from her talents as a lounge singer (nice tone, but she oversings) to her deportment in lingerie (again, nice tone).

But it is a series in which the first episode's funniest moment comes not in any of the nutty business when Ellie's toilet overflows and not one, but two wacky neighbors are called in, but in the repetition of an old joke. "What do you call a guy who hangs around with musicians? A drummer."

The optimism in "Watching Ellie's" title, in other words, is misplaced. Sit through two episodes and you are reminded of why such names can be a bad idea, sort of like having a columnist named Skip. Watching "Ellie"? Not if I can help it.

The show does take some chances. It's shot single-camera, meaning it's free of the familiar sitcom stage setting, and without a laugh track. It presents every episode as occurring in real time, even to the point of having a 22-minute clock counting down to 0. (That's a TV half-hour, minus ads, and, yes, the riveting "24" does the same thing, to somewhat more dramatic effect.)

The nice thing about the clock is that it makes it easy on TV critics. Without having to do extra work, I can tell you, for instance, that Hall presents his wife in bra and panties for the series' first seven minutes. This, before having her flash her bare chest at a tow-truck driver in Episode 2. Sex, of course, sells, but it is a miscalculation of image and appeal to think a Louis-Dreyfus show needs to fall back on the same flesh-peddling ways of, say, a "Bob Patterson."

Using their clout

Hall and Louis-Drefyus also used their post-"Seinfeld" clout to guarantee they won't have to do more than 15 episodes per year and to hire Louis-Dreyfus' real-life sister, Lauren Bowles, to play her sister. Originally, before the real world caught back up with them, they even imagined it running PBS-style, with commercials before and after.

On one level, good for them. Great work comes more often from letting talented people have their way than from reining them in, and if circumstances mean you have a little muscle, flex it.

On another level, what were they thinking? This is a series so loaded with gimmicks the effect becomes as cutesy-pie as Louis-Dreyfus' determined vocal stylings. There's the countdown clock; there's the sister who'll apparently only talk to Ellie on the phone; there's the sister's husband Steven, who we'll apparently never see; there's the bad ex-boyfriend (Steve Carell), who's always got a comic costume (hair-coloring foil, eye patch); there's even a clock-dictated structure, Ellie frantically trying to get something done, that feels like formula after just two episodes.

Hacking through the contrivances, you find some strong supporting players, especially the riotously deadpan Carell, familiar to Chicago audiences from an early-1990s Second City tenure and to national ones from "The Daily Show." Explaining the eye patch, he says, without a hint of self-awareness, "Big Lasik surgery discount that in restrospect -- way too good to be true."

He's joined by Peter Stormare ("Fargo"), funny if overmanic as the lovestruck building maintenance guy; Darren Boyd as Ellie's new squeeze, her guitarist; and Don Lake ("Best in Show") as a doctor in Ellie's building.

Working hard at being liked

But Louis-Dreyfus herself seems off. Where her Elaine worked because there was such a sly edge hiding behind that sweet face, the actress as Ellie appears to be working to project such overrated qualities as "likable" and "nice" and to be magnetic enough to carry her own series. She is made to go out of her way to hand a dollar to a homeless guy, and the character buckles under the pressure. The performance seems fabricated and self-conscious, reminiscent, strangely enough, of Kim Cattrall's mannered work in "Sex and the City."

It doesn't help that Hall never establishes a consistent tone, as the series veers from attempts at flat-out farce, a la "Frasier," to slice-of-life realism reminiscent of "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd."

"Watching Ellie" is not without clever lines (tow-truck driver: "I don't take bribes anymore," the unexplained "anymore" left to resonate), but when a scene seems to demand a comeback with pop, Hall offers fizzle. "You are a horse's ass," is her sendoff to the ex, and the confrontation with the tow-truck driver ends like this:

Driver: "You people are nuts."

Ellie: "Oh, that's nice. That's nice."

The "Seinfeld" curse continues. Reruns of the real thing available nightly at 6:30 and 10:30.

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The 'Seinfeld' syndrome

The four stars of the most popular comedy series of the 1990s have not exactly set the world on fire since their last episode together in 1998:

1. Michael Richards (Kramer)
His sitcom "The Michael Richards Show" lasted eight episodes on NBC in the fall of 2000.

2. Jerry Seinfeld (himself)
He's done standup on TV since his self-titled show, but mostly we've seen him in not-particularly-funny American Express ads.

3. Jason Alexander (George)
His sitcom "Bob Patterson" lasted five episodes on ABC last fall. He's still starring on TV, though - in the role of KFC shill.

4. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine)
With hubby Brad Hall as executive producer, her "Watching Ellie" (in which she stars as Ellie Riggs, top photo) debuts on NBC Tuesday and tries to avoid the curse.

Where are they now?

Some connected with the series have fared quite well, while others . . .

Larry David (Co-creator)
Stars in the critically acclaimed HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Patrick Warburton (Puddy)
Starred as "The Tick"in the now- defunct Fox series.

Estelle Harris (Estelle Costanza)
Busy in voiceovers, most notably as Mrs. Potatohead in "Toy Story 2."

Heidi Swedberg (Susan Ross)
Small roles in "Breast Men" and "Dennis the Men-ace Strikes Again."

Danny Woodburn (Mickey Abbott)
Appears on CBS' "Becker" and NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

Bob Balaban (Russell Dalrimple)
Featured in movies such as "Gosford Park," "Ghost World" and "The Mexican." Directing a pilot for NBC.

Jerry Stiller (Frank Costanza)
A regular on CBS' "King of Queens," Stiller also was in "Zoolander" and a hit Nike commercial.

Wayne Knight (Newman)
Appears in Showtime's "Bleacher Bums" and was a regular in "3rd Rock from the Sun."

John O'Hurley (Mr. Peterman)
Hosted "To Tell the Truth" and did voiceovers for Xerox, Cadillac Seville and the Cartoon Network.

Phil Morris (Jackie Chiles)
Busy with movies for BET. Also in the film "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas" and did voices for Disney's "Atlantis."

Steve Johnson is the Chicago Tribune media critic.

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