Television, being an expensive mass-market medium, is inherently conservative. And as in any conservative business, executives try to copy past successes. That's why you got so many sitcoms about aimless twenty-somethings who drink suspicious amounts of coffee. But something weird happens when the distinguishing characteristic of the successes--currently HBO's lineup of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm--is that they break the mold. What you get is a lot of shows copying not-copying: The Bernie Mac Show, 24, Malcolm in the Middle, Undeclared. You get Innovative TV.
There aren't many times when network execs are so open to out-of-the-box ideas, and so Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has spent the past four years raising her kids and living on fat Seinfeld royalties, is jumping in with hers. "It's not like I was dying to leap back into this," she says. "I was just excited by this idea." Her new sitcom, Watching Ellie, which debuts on NBC at the end of next month, is innovation packed. In addition to nixing the laugh track, using a single camera that follows the characters around, inserting songs and ditching the three-jokes-a-page rule, the show takes place in real time, so each week a clock in the corner of the screen counts down 22 minutes in the life of lounge singer and Los Angeles single gal Ellie Riggs, uninterrupted except for a freeze frame that precedes the commercial breaks.
"We watch it and we go, 'God, it feels like a cable show,'" says Louis-Dreyfus' husband and Ellie creator Brad Hall. He means that in a good way. Not, as he says, like "God, it feels like a local public-access show." Says Louis-Dreyfus: "It's a reinvention of storytelling, which a lot of the HBO shows are. [NBC entertainment president] Jeff Zucker realizes that he needs to do something different or else he's out of a job." Zucker was so enthusiastic about breaking the rules that he originally suggested not having commercials interrupt the show. Then he realized that was a much more direct path to being out of a job.
Zucker may be trying to overcome having given Emeril Lagasse a sitcom, but Louis-Dreyfus has to deal with the expectations that come from having been in the most successful show of the past decade. The expectations have led to articles about the Seinfeld Curse--which has been blamed for the quick demise of both The Michael Richards Show in the fall 2000 season and this season's Jason Alexander bomb, Bob Patterson. But 0 for 2 in the world of sitcoms is actually about right. The vast majority of shows don't make it past one season. Louis-Dreyfus attributes that to the difficulty of writing for the medium. "The thing about comedy is that you can't fake it. With a drama you can fake it," she says. "You can't fake the funny."