Sex and the single neurotic

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is messed up and real in the innovative "Watching Ellie," but the heroine in "Leap of Faith" is a formulaic Empowered TV Woman with fake problems.

Published February 28, 2002 9:00PM (EST)

In the late 1940s, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were looking for a way to work together, as their marriage was buckling under the strain of their divergent careers. Then, in 1950, CBS offered Ball the chance to create a TV version of her popular radio show, "My Favorite Husband." She insisted that her real-life husband be involved, and in the process of trying to fit the project to both his wife's artistic needs and their personal circumstances, Arnaz invented the modern sitcom.

Lucy liked performing in front of an audience, but didn't want to leave her California home (all shows at the time were shot in New York), so Arnaz bought and retrofitted a Hollywood soundstage to accommodate an audience, changing city zoning laws while he was at it. With an audience watching, the show needed to be filmed in sequence, like a play. This would have been impossible using traditional single-camera methods, so Arnaz enlisted game-show producer Al Simon and cinematographer Karl Freund to devise a multiple camera process and a lighting scheme that would permit shooting master shots, medium shots and close-ups all at once.

Fifty years later, in a nifty twist, another popular and gifted comedic actress has joined forces with her husband to put on a TV show. After a long hiatus, "Seinfeld" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus has returned to prime time with "Watching Ellie," a comedy about a quasi-single, semi-successful Los Angeles nightclub singer that premiered Tuesday on NBC. "Watching Ellie" is one of two new shows, the other being "Leap of Faith" -- premiering Wednesday night, also on NBC -- that try to wrestle with the sitcom form while at the same time addressing that perennial favorite topic of TV, the trials and tribulations of unmarried womanhood. But while "Watching Ellie" provides a fresh, funny and strikingly realistic change of pace, "Leap of Faith" is too derivative to be entirely successful.

Like "I Love Lucy," "Watching Ellie" is a lovingly constructed showcase that plays to the strengths of TV's funniest, best-loved and most fictionally troubled female nut job. And, like "Lucy," "Watching Ellie's" innovations also seem to have resulted from creative solutions to its star's particular needs and circumstances that might, at least for a while, change the way network comedies are made.

Louis-Dreyfus gives full credit for the show's idea and format -- no studio audience, no laugh track and one camera instead of the usual three -- to her husband, Brad Hall. The show takes place in real time, presenting a 22-minute slice of Ellie's life with a single commercial interruption. (The commercials are ushered in by an in-your-face freeze frame rather than the usual distracted dissolve.) Hall also traded in the traditional "writer's room" (in which a small herd of writers toil to fill a daunting jokes-per-minute quota) for a smaller team of writers who write each episode independently, and swapped the rimshot cadences of the traditional sitcom for a series of awkward moments and excruciating scenarios.

"I was interested in the in-between moments," Louis-Dreyfus explains in a conference-call interview, "moments when you are standing there, breathing in an elevator or looking in the mirror or crying for no reason -- the 'connective tissue stuff,' as Brad says." Hall also created a character loosely based on his wife ("Ellie is me with the volume turned up, making really bad choices," she says) and cast her real-life sister, Lauren Bowles, as her sister on the show. Louis-Dreyfus also convinced the studio to let them produce only 13 episodes the first year (and 15 if the show is picked up for subsequent seasons), instead of the usual 22, in order, she says, "to protect my mental health, my family life, my emotional well-being."

In fact, in making "Watching Ellie," the couple claims to have made "no creative concessions," an achievement in itself. And if Hall can't be credited with actually inventing this format -- most of that credit goes to the creators of hit cable series such as "Sex and the City," which proved that audiences could embrace TV comedy in a nontraditional format -- getting away with it is impressive enough. "We wanted to push the edge of the envelope as far as half-hour TV goes," Louis-Dreyfus says. Considering that "Watching Ellie" is not exactly Beckett, it's impressive (if you look at how rigid the once-groundbreaking formula has become) how far they've actually gone.

Created by former "Sex and the City" producer Jenny Bicks, "Leap of Faith" also takes a single-camera look at the life of a single girl/woman/whatever in the big city, and has also forgone the laugh track, the group writing and the easily amused studio audience. Faith (Sarah Paulson), the eponymous heroine, is a New York advertising copywriter in her mid-30s who dumps her irritating fianci as her wedding date approaches. "Watching Ellie" and "Leap of Faith" have been relentlessly compared to their precursors, and if you listened in on the conference calls with Louis-Dreyfus and Bicks, as I did, you could see how this might get annoying after a while.

"I wrote a number of 'Sex and the City' episodes," says Bicks, "and I think what people are hearing is my voice. I cannot change my voice and shouldn't." (Though some might argue that she should consider changing the voices of her characters so they don't sound exactly like those on "Sex and the City.") But that, pretty much, is where the similarities between "Leap of Faith" and "Watching Ellie" end.

While Louis-Dreyfus' Ellie, a manic ball of neuroses whose moods swing as wildly as a desktop pendulum toy, comes across as refreshingly real, Paulson's Faith remains somewhat of a blank. Maybe it's because, like so many "Suddenly ... in the City" heroines before her, Faith is a nice girl whose creators seem to be taking pains to portray her as, you know, "empowered," meaning that her problems are external and usually man-shaped.

There's always a measure of wish fulfillment in characters like Faith (the name alone tells us a lot), whose stories begin as they molt off their past and soar to new heights of possibility. This is the dullest kind of story; it's much more fun to watch a puffin take off than an eagle, and even better to watch it stumble on the landing. Bicks has compared "Leap of Faith" to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and discussed Faith's story in terms of "one girl's journey." Among the many differences between Moore's Mary Richards and Paulson's Faith, however, is the fact that Mary moved to Minneapolis after the man she had just finished putting through medical school dumped her. Faith, on the other hand, dispatches her fianci by -- bonus! -- sleeping with an impossibly cute actor who shows no sign of being vain, moronic or a self-centered psychopath. (Where? In New York? In Burbank?) Faith, in other words, is not all that messed up. And what kind of girl these days is not all that messed up?

There are real problems, and then there are TV problems; Faith seems to be plagued by the latter. While Ellie's boyfriend, Ben (Darren Boyd), for example, is cute, charming, sweet and a whole mess of big (married) trouble, Faith's fianci (Bradley White) is a cartoonish anti-marriage poster, controlling, condescending and dull. The real question -- so far unanswered -- is not why Faith dumped this guy, but why she went out with him in the first place, and got as far as picking out china patterns at Bergdorf and making it to the bridal shower. (Which is attended, as is the custom in TV Land, by a group of people who look as though they've just met, yet react in gasping, gaping unison to the main character's zany pronouncements.) While dispensing with the usual sitcom constraints, "Leap of Faith" seems somewhat reluctant to chuck the usual conventions, so it feels off-center yet somehow familiar.

As on "Sex and the City," Faith is surrounded by the requisite tight-knit group of friends, who seem to be little more than an assortment of broad personality traits. They're an implausibly sundry group with no discernible chemistry, and until they start revealing some major shared dysfunction, they're going to be sadly reminiscent of "The View." Patty (Lisa Edelstein) is an embarrassingly desperate art director given to constant sex talk; Cynthia (Regina King) is a "no-nonsense" married black neighbor who "practically runs" Calvin Klein; and Andy (Ken Marino), who works as a reporter for Rolling Stone, is Faith's best friend from college, and disappointingly straight. It's all very glamorous (sort of, except for the Rolling Stone writer), and as a result, "Leap of Faith" looks just like real life, as played on TV.

In the opening scene of the pilot for "Watching Ellie," our heroine sits in front of the mirror, practicing appropriately charming, offhand directives to her band. Then, for reasons that are never explained, she starts to cry. Compare this with the opening scene of "Leap of Faith," in which Faith and her four friends sit around a table at an outdoor cafi, mechanically tossing off zingers.

Patty: "Here's to Faith. And her last martini as a single girl."

Faith: "Hey, I have two more weeks. Trust me, there will be more martinis."

Andy to Patty: "Do you realize this may make us the last single people on Earth?"

Patty, right back at Andy: "I'm still not sleeping with you."

"Watching Ellie" takes place in Los Angeles, where all sitcoms are shot, but very few are set. (After so many New York-set shows, Los Angeles feels like the last great frontier in TV's urban renewal plan.) Specifically, Ellie lives in a typical Los Feliz area one-bedroom -- complete with charming '30s details, an incongruously hideous carpeted hallway and shabby elevator -- that creates the distinct feeling in the viewer of having gone to college with one of its residents.

"Leap of Faith," on the other hand, is shot on a stage that doesn't say New York as much as it says "Friends" without a laugh track. It might not be fair, or even interesting, to point out differences in the characters' standards of living. After all, Faith is a successful copywriter, and can presumably afford a big apartment. But unlike Ellie's problems, which are myriad and complex, Faith's seem to be neatly cordoned off from the rest of her otherwise happy-go-lucky and serene life.

Despite the show's flaws, it would be too bad to see "Leap of Faith" perform the same disappearing act as other recent NBC comedies that have inhabited the death zone following "Friends." Part of the difficulty in getting an ensemble comedy off the ground may lie in having to develop so many characters at once. Maybe, as time goes by, the reasons for the existence of characters such as Andy will become more apparent. (Or maybe Andy will conveniently start spending a lot of time on assignment, say, in L.A.) Mainly, it would be a shame to see the innovative baby thrown out with the formulaic bathwater. In the second episode, Faith deals with the humiliation of running into her former fianci with another woman. If story lines like these continue, and the standard sitcom clichis (like the hot coffee boy who looks like a soap star and is in and out of Patty's life in a single episode) are dropped, there may be hope for Faith after all.

Ellie, on the other hand, seems poised to follow in the footsteps of Elaine and Lucy. This girl is her problems. Rushing on her way to work after having been waylaid by an overflowing toilet and her infatuated Swedish super, Ingvar (Peter Stormare), she is chased down the street by her hilariously insufferable ex, Edgar (Steve Carell). Edgar has spotted her from a hair salon, and bolts outside with tin foil in his hair to tell her that his assistant has invited her to his birthday party by accident. Ellie calls him a horse's ass, to which he responds coolly, "Hey you're the one that went out with me for six months." Then he says he'll give her a call.

Maybe it's just me, but that's how normal people act, right?

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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