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Seeing is believing: Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 'Watching Ellie'
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You can plunk some ironic singles (four of them, canonically, but Friends has made six work: some absurdist writer really ought to try for ten) around a lunch table, interweave plot lines, and cue the laugh track--or not--for that arty savor. But actually finding the wry flavor of humor is a trickier task. Comedy chastened by uncertainty, jokes deepened beyond shtick but not into tragedy: It's tougher than it looks.

As Exhibit 150 of this precept, we have NBC's leaden Leap of Faith, a Sex and the City rip-off that lacks only the wit, the dirty talk, the light touch, and the interesting ambiguities of the original. (Otherwise, the two shows are indistinguishable.) Strangest of all, the minds behind the show not only should have known better, but did: Producer Jenny Bicks has written for Sex and the City, and director Nicole Holofcener made the fine, adult indie Walking and Talking. Yet on this evidence, both have forgotten how real people talk and behave around one another.

In the premiere, just before her wedding, blah, frizzy-haired Manhattan ad exec Faith (Sarah Paulson) stumbles into bed (in Brooklyn--which shows you how far a girl can go when she's really, really desperate) with Dan (Brad Rowe), the abashed hunk who auditioned for her company's latest spot. Afterward, she drops her boring-as-sin fiancé, surprising absolutely no one who has watched a minute of TV. In case we miss the hints that his dullish complacency will stifle her free-spirited ways--they're simultaneously blaring from a neon sign, added in closed-captioning, and crawling across the bottom of the screen--David informs Faith that, after they're married, they'll move to Bedford or Greenwich, and she can raise the kids.

Which would seem a whole lot more significant or oppressive if Faith were the least bit out of the ordinary. So far, though, all she does is crinkle her brow in confusion at life's manifold uncertainties and grimly discuss relationships during meals with her friends. (Oh, and she faces cute workplace issues. Get this: When she's told to come up with a campaign to make golf woman-friendly, she cracks, "Golf is like watching paint dry." Greenwich could never have handled repartee of that order.) Presumably, said friends represent something of the same moral cross-section that Carrie's pals do on Sex and the City, but since two of them don't seem to have been endowed with any personality, it's hard to know what they do besides fill out the aforementioned quota. Cynthia (Regina King) is a rote can-do buppie whose lack of quirks is just another p.c. throwaway. The nebbish Andy (Ken Marino)--who's a guy, in fact, just so that we don't confuse this with other shows--allegedly writes for Rolling Stone, though I think he might actually work in the mailroom or something, since all we have seen of him so far is the collection of rock T-shirts that he had to buy back from the street vendor who stole them from his apartment.

Best pal Patty (Lisa Edelstein, in the Kim Cattrall, slutty-and-proud-of-it role) gets what good lines there are: Stuck with the golf account, she wonders, "Don't you have a nice douche we can sell the hell out of?" But for long, arid stretches, Leap of Faith plods lamely down sitcom superhighways: Faith's brittle mom Cricket (Jill Clayburgh, her jaw rigid as if she were instructing a particularly sniffy elocution class) refuses to return the bridal gown; Andy dates an uptown girl; and so on. I know Sex and the City started out superficial, but even at its worst it played in deeper waters.

Pay-cable haters might quibble that, without the profanity, network TV is stuck with the sex that dare not speak its name--but good writing and good timing can always find ways around explicitness. Case in point: Julia Louis-Dreyfus's Watching Ellie, which gets the humor, and the humanity, just right. So far, at least, the show's quirky comic spirit, and the agreeably understated chemistry between its main players, have shaved off the star's residual harshness from all those years of playing Elaine. Peter Stormare, stolidly evil in Fargo, rampages particularly well as Ellie's hapless, enthusiastic roadie; Darren Boyd, as her guitarist and current love, underplays nicely. Ellie's sister Susan (played by Louis-Dreyfus's sister Lauren Bowles) gives her an actual female friend.

By now you know the trick: a timer in the corner counting down 22 minutes of "real" time in the life of a nightclub singer. After a while, it grows on you, becoming not an annoying meta-smirk, but part of an endearingly off-kilter world where nothing ever works out as it should. Ellie, her car about to be towed from a wedding, its front seat holding the sheet music for the bride's song to her husband, tries to suborn the driver any way she can. "I no longer take bribes," he boasts. "And I quit smoking." Reduced to flashing him, she still can't get a break--and even suffers the indignity of being advised to buy a Wonderbra. While the show relies far too heavily on Louis-Dreyfus's cleavage as a plot device, its appealing mix of goofy and ordinary should endure for at least the 14 scheduled episodes (which would outscore the combined runs of her former buddies' sitcoms). In addition to humanizing its star, Watching Ellie disproves the Seinfeld curse. Who knows: Maybe someday there'll even be a passable Jason Alexander show. Or is that too horrible to contemplate?

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