What was once “nothing” — the concept behind the “Seinfeld” show — is now “slice of life,” the selling point for similarly situated “Watching Ellie.” The pilot, and its second episode for that matter, are day-in-the-life vignettes — the first concerns an overflowing toilet and the two wacky neighbors who attempt to help, while the second involves retrieving song lyrics from a car before a wedding reception. Lacking out-and-out humor, its insouciant attitude toward sitcom structure is refreshing; between this and “Leap of Faith,” the other NBC debut this week, the Peacock appears to be embracing the “Sex and the City” paradigm in which comedy splashes in various-sized waves and lets story, rather than situations, lead to laughs. There’s a good possibility the first two “Watching Ellie’s” won’t generate more than four out-loud chuckles, but that’s no reason for audiences or networks to give up on this series’ prospects.
Creator Brad Hall, husband of Louis-Dreyfus, does make sure Ellie Riggs is no Elaine — her “Seinfeld” character — a worthy step, considering that the unshakable images of George and Kramer led to the early demises of “Bob Patterson” and “The Michael Richards Show.” Besides setting the show in Southern California and a fictitious jazz/supper club, Louis-Dreyfus, for the first 15 minutes, is established as sexy rather than kooky as she wanders her apartment and hallways in an open robe with a low-cut bra. Second, she’s the friendly one in the building as she seemingly knows everyone. And in a most subtle touch, she crushes the self-involved stigma of Elaine by offering a homeless man some cash on her way to her singing gig and, in general, treats everyone she meets with considerable respect.
Her most interesting relationship — and one imagines this will be “Ellie’s” compelling storyline — involves her sexual trysts with the married British guitarist in her band, Ben (Darren Boyd). The rascally nature of this affair informs their behavior — she’s giddy, he’s a philosophical apologist — and when they’re out of each other’s sights they, initially at least, are out of mind, too. His coolness is to be expected, especially when confronted by one of Ellie’s former boyfriends, the outrageously obnoxious Edgar (Steve Carell), who is too-much to be believed in the first two episodes.
As much as the Edgar character, whose unrelenting nature and obliviousness need some toning down, sends this show into a fantasy world, he get beat by the cliched, wacky neighbor Ingvar (Peter Stormare in an unforgiving, over-the-top role). Infatuated with Ellie, and she seems quite unaware of this, Ingvar is a doofus willing to help Ellie at any turn — mainly because he just wants to be in her presence. He has obviously told her he is a plumber — he’s the first one called in to fix the overflowing toilet — but he flops around in the water trying to get a better view of her disrobing. In episode two, he works as the band’s roadie and, strange as it seems, saves the day.
One wonders why Ellie would ever associate with these two. Their goofball presence undermines the Ben-Ellie relationship. One can only assume that since this single woman’s life is being told from a production team of men, that this is the way to show why Ben is so appealing — Ellie has made bad choices in her life and, truth be told, dating a married man is yet another one. Still, the supporting characters could use some toning down.
Ellie’s sister Susan (Lauren Bowles) does not get much screen time in the first two episodes — the taking of a pregnancy test makes for subplot in the second episode that ends with a predictable, yet well-timed, joke — but obviously their parallel lives will become comedic fodder down the road.
Ken Kwapis’ direction is compact and neat, relying more on dramatic technique than comedy. John Peters’ refreshing camera work adds to the enjoyability of “Watching Ellie.”
“Watching Ellie” is an improvement over the original title of “22 Minutes” though the show’s original conceit remains intact — a 22 minute countdown kept digitally in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. It does nothing for the show. Lose it. On the other hand, Brazilian guitarist and arranger Oscar Castro-Neves, with 40 years of credits related to bossa nova and jazz, gives “Ellie” a unique musical texture with soft and rhythmic Brazilian compositions. Clock and music make for each show’s ending as Ellie ends both episodes on the bandstand in midsong as the countdown hits zero. The tick-tock, however, has no impact.