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 two new situation comedies, Watching Ellie (debuting Feb. 26) and Leap of Faith (Feb. 28).
Each arrives with baggage: Ellie, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing a Los Angeles nightclub singer, is the latest show from a Seinfeld cast member, following the hollow Michael Richards Show and Jason Alexander's noisy Bob Patterson. Leap of Faith was created by Jenny Bicks, a former writer-producer for HBO's Sex and the City who contributed a lot to that show's wisecracky, sexually explicit tone. Watching Ellie, created by Louis-Dreyfus' writer-producer husband, Brad Hall, takes place in real time -- each week we watch about 22 minutes, give or take a commercial, of Ellie's life. Leap of Faith takes the basic structure of Sex and the City -- four single friends in Manhattan who spend a lot of time in restaurants, dining out on tales of dating woe -- and transposes it to network television, which means no nudity or naughty words. Watching Ellie is smart and likable -- it earns its gimmicky premise; Leap of Faith is pretty much a complete disaster.
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. By contrast, Leap of Faith is chilly and claustrophobic. Sarah Paulson (Jack & Jill) stars as Faith Wardwell, an advertising copywriter who, in the premiere, breaks off her engagement with a stuffed-shirt fellow (Bradley White) and sleeps with an actor who auditioned for a commercial campaign she's working on (he's played by Brad Rowe). This patently faithless Faith finds support among her trio of best friends: brash Patty (Felicity's Lisa Edelstein), who crows ''outrageous'' things like ''It's 2002 -- women watch porn!''; Cynthia (Regina King), in whom, after viewing two episodes, I could discern no distinguishing personality; and Andy (Ken Marino), a writer for Rolling Stone. (What's the point of specifying his place of employment if the show isn't going to get off a few jocular shots at Jann Wenner and company?) Jill Clayburgh pops up occasionally in a dreadful role as Faith's shrieky socialite mother.
Everybody says the word sex a lot; desperate attempts are made to coin new comic phrases such as ''You have sex hair!'' and ''eye sex'' (that's a lustful gaze, in the words of Faith's boss, Tim Meadows, from Saturday Night Live and...hey! The Michael Richards Show!). The whole enterprise is depressing. If Watching Ellie on Tuesday raises your hopes for the continued health of the sitcom, watching Leap of Faith on Thursday may dash them. Watching Ellie: B+ Leap of Faith: D