Television Turmoil: Watching Ellie

Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the small screen.

With the gift of hindsight, Julia Louis-Dreyfus seemed like the most obvious candidate to find television success post-Seinfeld. While Elaine wasn’t immune to the wackier elements of the show, she appeared down to Earth next to George and Kramer. Louis-Dreyfus also showcased skills that make for a solid lead. Namely, the ability to know when to take the spotlight and when to cede it to another performer. In 2002, however, making her the star of a sitcom took some convincing, especially after the failures of her co-stars.

ABC, CBS, Fox and HBO all passed on Watching Ellie before NBC picked it up. While that likely had something to do with the show’s premise, the “Seinfeld cursewas already a talking point. Created by Louis-Dreyfus’s husband, Brad Hall, the show took “slice-of-life” literally. Each episode followed a 22-minute chunk of Ellie’s life in real time with no laugh track and a single-camera setup. The program was as different from Seinfeld as you could get while still being a sitcom.

Ellie, a cabaret singer who we seldom see performing on stage, is dating Brad (Darren Boyd), a musician who also happens to be married. Ellie also interacts with a collection of oddballs who filter in and out of her life as needed. There’s Edgar (Steve Carell, perfecting his single-camera bonafides), Ellie’s egotistical ex and her flakey sister, Susan (Lauren Bowles, Louis-Dreyfus’s actual half-sister). In her apartment building, where a significant amount of the show takes place, Ellie mingles with her landlord Ingvar (Peter Stormare) and neighbor/veterinarian, Dr. Zimmerman (Don Lake).

Reading through that cast list might clue you in on one of Watching Ellie’s problems. For a show aiming to focus on someone’s day-to-day life, half the cast are people you would not expect to interact with regularly. Who willingly spends 22 minutes with their landlord? The oddball characters are perfect for sitcom antics, but the show had to create specific reasons for Ellie to run into them. Ellie’s toilet overflows, so she needs to call Ingvar to fix it. Ellie’s making a special dinner, but her sister has to cancel, so her boyfriend invites Dr. Zimmerman over. These situations sound fine in a vacuum but struggle under the program’s “real time” concept.

In theory, Watching Ellie’s premise set it apart from everything else on the air. In execution, the program became a gimmick that quickly wore thin, exposing how little there was underneath. NBC’s insistence on a clock in the corner that counts down the time left on an episode didn’t help. The show had a lot of potential, especially with its stacked cast. Perhaps the show would have fared better as a more traditional sitcom?

If that was your actual response while reading, congratulations. You have what it takes to be a network executive! Ellie’s ratings rapidly declined throughout the program’s 10 episode first season. NBC had invested a lot into the show. Louis-Dreyfus and her husband each made $350,000 an episode, for instance. Rather than walk away, they renewed Ellie for a retooled second season.

Gone were the real time premise and single camera setup. The new Watching Ellie was a traditional sitcom, complete with laugh track. Without its key concept, the show had even less to offer. Much of the 6 episode season revolves around a growing love triangle between Ellie, her now ex-boyfriend, and Steve Carell’s Edgar. Ratings continued to sink before the network eventually pulled the plug. Watching Ellie became another victim of the “Seinfeld curse.”

Without the network’s insistence on turning the show’s concept into a gimmick, there’s a chance Ellie could have succeeded. It definitively established that Julia Louis-Dreyfus had more to offer than Elaine Benes. Perhaps this was just another example of a show ahead of its time. While the single camera sitcom had found some success by 2002, the style hadn’t peaked. It makes sense why the network might think a more traditional approach would work, but it was too drastic a departure for viewers.

Can you tell which of the pictures is from a multi-cam sitcom? Only 5% of the population gets it right!

A few years after Watching Ellie, Steve Carell would return as the lead in The Office and change the entire network sitcom landscape, making single-camera shows the new norm. To her credit, Julia Louis-Dreyfus didn’t let the failure of Ellie keep her down. She bounced back in 2006 with The New Adventures of Old Christine breaking the “curse” with her Emmy win that year. She won 6 more Emmys for her work on Veep, establishing herself as one of the best comedic actors working today.

I won’t claim that none of that would have happened without Watching Ellie, but the show gave Louis-Dreyfus the platform she needed. Even in failure, it allowed her to wash off her past work and return with a clean slate. Of the three shows I’ve covered with Seinfeld alum, Ellie is by far the most watchable. It’s in the title, after all. Sadly, this is not the last one and I have a feeling the next program won’t be as pleasant.

Next Time: We complete our look at the “cursed” shows of the Seinfeld cast with Jason Alexander’s second attempt at leading a sitcom: Listen Up!

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for future shows you want to see covered, leave them in the comments below. For more great content, follow me on Twitter @JesseSwanson