The Crazy Story Behind Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Real-Time Sitcom, ‘Watching Ellie’
Over the years, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has built an incredible comedy career. Not only did she star on Seinfeld, one of the most revered sitcoms of all time, she’s currently starring in Veep on HBO, a role that has earned her much attention at the Emmys (winning four times for the role). In addition, last year saw the series grabbing the trophy for Outstanding Comedy Series and finally knocking Modern Family off of its five-year winning streak. That’s not even touching upon her brief stint as a cast member on Saturday Night Live or her tenure on The New Adventures of Old Christine, which ran for over 100 episodes and earned Louis-Dreyfus another Emmy in the process. What’s so fascinating about Julia Luis-Dreyfus’s career though is that in spite of these huge successes, there are still a number of odd anomalies that checker it, too. Take for instance, the real-time sitcom created by Louis-Dreyfus’ husband in 2002, Watching Ellie.
Premiering in 2002 on NBC, Watching Ellie was a surprisingly ambitious project for the actress to follow up Seinfeld with. Brad Hall’s vision of the series had the goal of presenting a 22-minute slice from out of Ellie’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) life. Ellie is a lounge singer in the series, but this is a sitcom that is interested in showing “real” situations from Ellie’s world, with the storylines all being organic to that. It’s almost like structuring an episode of a sitcom entirely out of the “dovetailing” moments from a Seinfeld episode. It’s a style that delivers big payoffs, but can be arduous to plan out. Accordingly, Watching Ellie was less concerned with going out on a big joke or scenes ending with a catchy button, but rather took a focus on building organic situations that would service the structure. Take the series’ pilot, which tells the incredibly humble story of Ellie trying to rush out of her apartment in time for a gig as she deals with normal things like an overflowing toilet, her ex-boyfriend, and proper breakup etiquette. Watching Ellie was also a single-camera sitcom, which was still rare at the time.
It also must have been on Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s mind, as well as in the public consciousness, that the cast of Seinfeld’s post-Seinfeld endeavors were not working out nearly as well as anyone had imagined, with The Michael Richards Show and Jason Alexander’s Bob Patterson crashing and burning during the previous years. The term “Seinfeld curse” was even entering the pop culture lexicon. Watching Ellie had lofty expectations, where it would be all too easy for the show to fail like its predecessors. It’s in this sense that the creative artifice and ambitious presentation style would hopefully be the saving grace to keep this show afloat. Ironically, Watching Ellie’s real-time format would simultaneously be what would save the show, as well as what would kill it.
In the program’s infancy it leaned heavily into its real-time concept, with a ticking clock in the corner of the screen for the first seven episodes capitalizing on the “live” aspect of it all. The series would find a number of ways to make use of this small-scale vignette storytelling, like an episode where Ellie is suffering from the effects of medication for the full half-hour. Or another that’s set entirely during a tango lesson, while also working out a love triangle storyline in the process. Other episodes focus on the mundanity of life, like dealing with your car being towed, a tumultuous dinner party, or even an earthquake, all of which the series explored without the luxury of cutting away for time purposes. This inherently gave the show a different perspective and fresh quality than the rest of the sitcoms of the time.
Sitcoms will swing for the fences often, but this is a show that was really trying to do something new while forcing themselves to tell different sorts of stories. As impressive as a real-time sitcom could be, something like this only works if it’s done right. It has just as much the risk of feeling hacky or hinging on a gimmick as it does at feeling innovative. There’s a reason that Watching Ellie’s polarizing concept was turned down at ABC, CBS, FOX, and even HBO, before finally finding a home at NBC. Watching Ellie had a reasonably strong team behind it, featuring writers like Joe Furey (NewsRadio) and Jack Burditt (30 Rock) amongst its staff. Single-camera wunderkind of the time, Ken Kwapis (responsible for the pilots of The Office, The Larry Sanders Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Bernie Mac Show, pretty much making him the authority in the area) was even hired to direct the pilot, which was a huge boon and another act of goodwill for the series.
Beyond its challenging premise and its strong creative staff, Watching Ellie also featured an enviable cast in front of the camera. Louis-Dreyfus delivered consistent work as Ellie Riggs (although it’s far from being the most memorable work of her career), but the series also featureed a post-Daily Show pre-The Office Steve Carell as Ellie’s ex-boyfriend, Edgar. Peter Stormare is another familiar face within the cast who does a good job with the material.
Watching Ellie would make a name for itself during its first season, but in spite of trying to do something different, it wasn’t long until the network started tampering and panic set in. The ticking clock that was a constant feature of the series was soon shifted to only the beginning and the end of act breaks, starting with episode eight. This would be the first move that the network would make to downplay the show’s real-time aspect, even if it was its signature concept. The show was called Watching Ellie, after all. NBC would claim that Ellie’s clock apparently highlighted just how much of a 30-minute program was actually ads, but further actions made it clear that the network was in full-on panic mode.
The next knee-jerk reaction saw NBC pulling Watching Ellie ten episodes into its thirteen-episode season (with the final three episodes never airing anywhere) with the hopes of re-tooling and salvaging the show. Curiously, Watching Ellie’s first season premiered to 16.7 million viewers, while its first season finale had 6.9 million viewers tune in. That’s undeniably a huge drop-off, but it’s crazy to think that 6.9 million viewers in today’s television landscape would guarantee a series several years on a network’s programming slate. When Watching Ellie returned almost a full year later for its six-episode second season, it barely resembled itself. Completely gone was the show’s real-time structure and single-cam setup, with the sitcom now being a multi-camera production that was also taped in front of a studio audience (with an additional laugh track also thrown in). Really the only connective tissue between these versions of the same show was that Ellie was still a lounge singer.
This diluted second season saw episodes exhibiting much more sitcom-y behavior, like Ellie crashing someone’s date, pretending to be a busker, or becoming a contestant on Family Feud. There’s an episode set within a therapy session that ironically would have been perfect material for the first season’s real-time setup, but now the topic barely holds any appeal due in the iteration that they choose to pursue it with. This disastrous repositioning of the show feels reminiscent of NBC’s similar treatment to their recent Will Arnett and Christina Applegate vehicle, Up All Night. The single-camera series also saw a premature hiatus that had the show returning retooled and in a broader multi-cam, studio audience context. This seems to act as strong evidence that this sort of approach never works. Just let shows be themselves. Then if they fail, they’re at least doing it on their own terms.
While the show wasn’t incredibly written before, it at least had an ambitious format to fall back on that was doing something new. Watching Ellie was also a show that delighted in the madcap romp of sitcoms and how that could seamlessly blend with a boiled down chaotic moment in someone’s life. Now, with the construct absent and that perspective lacking, there was really nothing going on. Even if you were returning to the show for the characters or the performances, season two’s representation of them would end up feeling more like caricatures of themselves that were now serving up a broader sitcom goal. All of that creativity was just swallowed up in a flash.
Watching Ellie transformed into basically any other sitcom, with this revamped version managing to do much worse than the first season. The second season might have seen slightly higher numbers than the end of the first, with the premiere garnering 9.8 million viewers and the (series) finale bringing in 8.4 million, but with audiences rebelling and the show creatively bankrupt there wasn’t much of a reason to keep going. The show was cancelled shortly after.
With Veep’s fifth season premiering last night, it almost means a little more when considering the journey that Julia Louis-Dreyfus has gone on to get to this point. Or at the least makes you appreciate HBO allowing Veep to be its own show and tell the stories that it wants to. Watching Ellie remains perhaps the most interesting diversion in Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ career, and while a real-time installment of Veep wouldn’t be totally out of the question — nor would Steve Carell dropping in for a guest spot — I doubt we’d be getting the ticking clock in the corner of the screen through the whole thing.