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From Elaine to Ellie

Has Julia Louis-Dreyfus' new show broken the "Seinfeld" curse?

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Her new vehicle, "Watching Ellie," debuted on NBC right after the Olympics. And it appears that the curse, if there ever was one, has been ended. "Watching Ellie" dominates its time period, a slot that was averaging only fourth place for NBC before the Olympics.

(It doesn't hurt that NBC is sandwiching "Watching Ellie" between episodes of "Frasier," but that's not the total picture of why Louis-Dreyfus' show is succeeding. The latest Nielsen numbers available at deadline (for the March 12 episode) showed "Watching Ellie" had an average of 11.1 million viewers that night — more than a "Frasier" rerun pulled in the preceding half-hour. "Ellie" won its time period, 17 percent ahead of its closest competitor.)



On "Seinfeld," Louis-Dreyfus played Jerry's ex-girlfriend, Elaine Benes, in a show long renowned for being about "nothing" — dating, friends and all of life's daily vicissitudes. She won a Golden Globe in 1994 and an Emmy in 1997.



Now she and her husband, who is the creator, writer and executive producer of "Watching Ellie," have cooked up a half-hour that is not all that different in substance from what "Seinfeld" was about: coping with the exigencies of daily life.



In "Ellie," Louis-Dreyfus is a nightclub singer in L.A. She has a married younger sister (Lauren Bowles) who is too pretty by far, a mysteriously accented neighbor (Peter Stormare) who is smitten by her, a British boyfriend (Darren Boyd) who is the guitarist in her band, and another odd-duck neighbor (Don Lake) who is a veterinarian. The mix is a good one — quirky and odd, warm and … well … a little more nubby than fuzzy. But the characters are well-drawn and believable. They make up a likeable and funny ensemble, not an easy end to achieve.



In addition to clever writing and a first-rate company, "Ellie" has what Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin — a throwaway bit of nothing (sometimes literally) designed to divert the audience's attention while the real work is done. In "Ellie" it's "real time." There's an elapsed-time readout in the lower-left corner of the screen throughout. It starts at 22:00. It stops during the commercial break and picks up later exactly where it left off. When it gets to 0:00, the episode is over. It lends a certain immediacy to the half-hour that adds to the show's appeal.



I was never a big Jerry Seinfeld fan, so I am doubly impressed that Louis-Dreyfus has the talent — and she sings, too — to carry a sitcom on her own. She is capable of playing somebody other than Elaine, and she does it quite well. She and her husband made some shrewd decisions in putting together the premise, the ensemble and the shtick with the clock.



Maybe that's the key. There is no curse. All it took to succeed was wise decisions, and Louis-Dreyfus knew how to make them. S"Watching Ellie" airs Tuesday nights at 8:30 p.m. on NBC-TV.





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