Cathy's World: Garbage and Gimmicks

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   March 6, 2002 at 12:37 PM

LOS ANGELES, March 6 (UPI) -- All this talk lately about the decline of the sitcom has got me thinking. Could exceptionally smart, mass-market hits like NBC's "Friends" and Fox's "The Simpsons" have led us to expect too much?

Perhaps, as the old Nichols and May routine put it, we should pause to appreciate the unsung drones of TV, those writers who faithfully work away in obscurity -- quietly, steadily, putting out garbage.

Developing a taste for this sort of stuff may be the best plan of action, because garbage and gimmicks is the new trend for the current season of midseason replacement shows.

Let's start with NBC's two newest comedies, "Watching Ellie" and "Leap of Faith," both of which premiered last week. NBC's promotional catchphrase for itself is The Quality Shows. Alas, these are not.

About "Leap of Faith," which made its debut in the coveted post-"Friends" slot, the less said the better, but let's get it over with. This single-camera comedy about the love lives of four New York friends in their 20s is derivative down to its last molecule.

Fresh-faced, adorable Faith (Sarah Paulson) jilts her boring fiancé, just like Rachel did in the first season of "Friends." Although Faith is (of course) blonde, her two best girlfriends are saltily ethnic. There's Cynthia (Regina King), in the stock TV role of Black Person Whose Only Friends Are White People, and Patty (Lisa Edelstein), sort of a slutty version of Rhoda.

They sit around in restaurants giggling about sex, just like the "Sex and the City" gals. Not surprising, since creator and executive producer Jenny Bicks is an Emmy Award-winning "Sex and the City" veteran.

But while the rhythms and patter of "Leap of Faith" are virtually identical to "Sex and the City," the wit is not. Sample "Leap of Faith" snappy punchline: "Uh, it's 2002," slutty Patty lectures a clueless male friend. "Women watch porn. They also vote."

Who knows why this sort of thing works on HBO and not on NBC? It can't be simply that HBO allows more freedom than NBC -- the usual network excuse -- because "Leap of Faith" is pretty racy for something scheduled in what used be called the family hour.

"I think the imperative thing is it USED to be called the family hour," NBC's West Coast President, Scott Sassa, said when asked about this at the network's press conference.

One thing about Sassa, he's a company man. He actually got up and cited the Isaac and Ismail "West Wing" episode -- you know, that ultra-earnest lecture about prejudice that showrunner Aaron Sorkin threw together post-Sept. 11 -- as an example of the Quality Shows.

You could practically hear the eye rolling at that one. TV critics tend to worship Sorkin (I find him unbearable), but that "West Wing" episode broke the smarm-o-meter and was generally panned.

Compared to "Leap of Faith," "Watching Ellie," the much-hyped new Julia Louis-Dreyfus vehicle, is not completely garbagey -- just gimmicky. Unfortunately, it's also not very good.

Each episode takes place in 22 minutes of anxiety-packed real time, with the clock ticking away in the lower right corner and the action freezing for commercials.

But the ensuing frenzy quickly becomes aggravating. Will Ellie's overflowing toilet make her irredeemably late for her latest singing engagement? Will she fetch her music from her towed car in time to make it to her friend's wedding? Will viewers resist the urge to reach through the TV screen and strangle her?

And you do want to, because a peculiar thing about "Watching Ellie" (perhaps it's the faux reality introduced by the real time gimmick) is that you become as irritated with these fictional people as you might with their real-life counterparts.

Why did Ellie park her car in the fire lane? Why does she answer every one of her stupid sister's cell phone calls? Why did she throw that Kleenex in the toilet -- doesn't she know that only toilet paper belongs in toilets? How can she be so constantly incompetent? Why not just put her out of her misery?

Julie Louis-Dreyfus's Ellie has been compared, inevitably, to her old "Seinfeld" character Elaine. But this is an Elaine without the benefit of brilliant "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David's vision.

"Where's the guy?" Ellie wails in an upcoming episode, as she's looking for the parking valet.

"Perhaps he has prematurely evacuated," says her Swedish neighbor Ingvar (Peter Stormare.) "It's funny, no?"

"No, it's not funny," says Ellie. Well, she's right about that one.

Ingvar lusts after Ellie, as does pretty much every other man in her universe: another neighbor, a tow-truck driver, her married British boyfriend (Darren Boyd), her jerky ex-boyfriend (the sublime Steve Carell, on leave from "The Daily Show," and the source of the only laughs on the two "Watching Ellie" episodes I've seen.)

That's because the show is basically a self-indulgent vanity production, thus all the scenes of Ellie singing and running around in her lingerie. That Louis-Dreyfus's real life sister (Lauren Bowles) plays her incredibly annoying TV sister is just a minor element.

"Watching Ellie" is the brainchild of Louis-Dreyfus's husband, the writer Brad Hall, previously best known for the dreadful post-"Friends" sitcom "The Single Guy." He's the showrunner here because NBC wanted a show starring his wife.

Hall's response to anyone unenthralled with his product -- they're just jealous -- is less than convincing.

"You know what? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I have an unbelievably beautiful, well-known wife, and the people who criticize me don't," he told the Los Angeles Times recently.

Hall and Louis-Dreyfus are known for having an unusually long and happy Hollywood marriage, which is great for them, but not for the audience. Apparently they only want to work with each other.

Other than some script doctor assignments and adapting a couple of novels into unproduced screenplays, Hall had been basically spending time with the couple's two sons and practicing his guitar after "The Single Guy" was cancelled. After "Seinfeld" ended, Louis-Dreyfus took a long sabbatical.

At the NBC news conference, the couple seemed almost in physical pain at the sheer unbearableness of being forced to explain their show to yahoos.

This was rather remarkable, because one thing about comedy writers and comic actors -- even when the particular product being promoted isn't funny, they're normally able to put on a funny press conference.

Instead, Hall droned on earnestly and boringly, and Louis-Dreyfus occasionally affected meant-to-be-endearing little gestures. At one point, she actually waved to the ceiling while explaining that Ellie's last name (Riggs) is in honor of Louis-Dreyfus's dead grandmother.

Most of the time, though, she barely suppressed her resentment of the whole process. Someone asked how she and Hall make decisions together -- an inane but predictable question.

"Well, that's none of your business," Louis-Dreyfus snapped.

However, she added later, she wants the show to be a success and to "enjoy the process ... because otherwise, what's the point?"

That pile of "Seinfeld" money means neither ever has to work again. "Watching Ellie" makes you wonder, what IS the point?

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