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Archive for Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Elaine finds life beyond ‘Seinfeld’

February 26, 2002

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Another "Seinfeld" veteran strikes out on her own. After the embarrassing failures of "The Michael Richards Show" and Jason Alexander's pathetic "Bob Patterson," viewers can be forgiven if they avert their eyes.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus wisely chose to avoid the punch-line driven, laugh-tracked, three act, multiple camera situation comedy format. Every week, "Watching Ellie," (7:30 p.m., NBC) follows her lounge singer character Ellie Riggs for exactly 22 minutes. There's even a little digital read-out that tells us how much time has elapsed. Between "24" and "Ellie," this TV season will certainly go down in history as the year of the ticking clock.

Ellie's life unfolds with the crazy logic of a waking dream. Everything that can go wrong, does, often with surreal overtones. In tonight's episode, her toilet overflows just as she is about to leave for a singing engagement. "The little thingy in the back" that turns off the water is nowhere to be seen. She calls on her immigrant handyman neighbor Ingvar (Peter Stormare, the quiet pathological killer from "Fargo") who can't find the "thingy" either. He sloshes around and slips, cracking his head on the tub. Ellie rushes down the hall to find a doctor (Don Lake), only to have him arrive stark naked in her bathroom. In a second episode provided for review, a crucial piece of music gets locked in her boyfriend Ben's (Darren Boyd) car. First the valet goes missing, then a thousand car keys become confused and finally a tow truck arrives to take the car away.

These nightmare scenarios provide plenty of opportunities for the physical pratfalls and humiliating self-debasement that Dreyfus mastered as Elaine Benes. For all of its pettiness, "Ellie" is far more grounded in reality than the cartoon-like "Seinfeld." Ellie's relationship with Ben, a married musician in her band, seems both passionate and complex. Her ex-boyfriend Edgar (Steve Carrell, "The Daily Show"), on the other hand, would have fit in with Jerry, George and Newman. He badgers the already-late Ellie in the street, only to disinvite her to his birthday party.

If "Ellie" resembles any other current comedy, it might be HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" produced by "Seinfeld" creator Larry David. But even that show lacks the singular focus of this experiment. As the title implies "Watching Ellie" calls for the camera to dwell on one character for the entire episode, week after week. That may prove to become a burden on both Ms. Dreyfus and her audience.

Fans who can't wait for the third installment of "The History of Britain" should pounce on the new four-part miniseries "Elizabeth" (8 p.m., History Channel, nightly through Thursday), hosted, narrated and based on the acclaimed book by historian David Starkey.

Part one "From the Prison to the Palace" details Elizabeth I's harrowing upbringing. Her mother was executed when she was age 3, she was declared a bastard and disinherited, sexually abused and imprisoned in the Tower of London. All the while, she mastered several languages and managed to out-live and out-maneuver her siblings to become Queen.

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