Network sitcoms are going through a fallow period right now. Sure, ”Friends” is having a fine, funny season, and ”The Bernie Mac Show” is lively and fresh. But in general the format is flagging. ”Everybody Loves Raymond,” which debuted in 1996, was the last conventional-format sitcom (family setting, taped in front of a studio audience) to elicit big laughs right from the start; ”Malcolm in the Middle,” now in its third season, opened up new stylistic possibilities in the shot-on-film sitcom genre.
Let’s see, what else? ”Undeclared,” Judd Apatow’s sharp college comedy, is searching for an audience; ”The Tick” – probably the best live-action superhero show ever, and no, I haven’t forgotten ”Smallville” – is gone, canceled. As for the rest – do you know anyone these days who makes a point of watching ”Just Shoot Me” or ”The Drew Carey Show”? So give NBC credit for trying to do something different with Watching Ellie (debuting Feb. 26, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing a Los Angeles nightclub singer).
”Ellie” is the latest show from a ”Seinfeld” cast member, following the hollow ”Michael Richards Show” and Jason Alexander’s noisy ”Bob Patterson.” Created by Louis-Dreyfus’ writer-producer husband, Brad Hall, ”Ellie” takes place in real time – each week we watch about 22 minutes, give or take a commercial, of our leading lady’s life. The result is smart and likable; it earns its gimmicky premise.
Louis-Dreyfus’ Ellie is less ditsy, more focused than ”Seinfeld”’s Elaine, and not nearly as deluded: Ellie’s heart may be in crooning standards, but she pays her L.A. rent by taking work where she can get it, such as singing in commercials. The opening episode allows Louis-Dreyfus to do some inspired slapstick shtick when her toilet overflows, and that emergency allows us to meet her neighbors, who include the building’s lascivious super (Peter Stormare) and, down the hall, a veterinarian played by the invaluable Don Lake, a veteran of Bonnie Hunt’s terrific short-lived sitcoms (”The Building” and ”The Bonnie Hunt Show”) and a scene-stealer in the 2000 feature film ”Return to Me,” which Hunt wrote and directed. In casting a comic actor as deadpan adroit as Lake, as well as Steve Carell (from Jon Stewart’s ”The Daily Show”) as an obnoxious ex-boyfriend, Louis-Dreyfus and Hall prove that, unlike Richards and Alexander, they know the value of letting the star step back occasionally to permit someone else to get the laughs.
”Watching Ellie” sets up some promising story lines, such as the emotionally fraught affair our gal is having with the guitarist in her band, and the premiere, directed by ”Malcolm” and ”The Larry Sanders Show” vet Ken Kwapis, has an attractively dark glow to its nighttime setting. ”Watching Ellie” has an open, inviting atmosphere; it leaves you wanting more.