Are You Watching Ellie, Julie?

Scripps-Howard News Service 3.20.02
Balint Vazsonyi

Fans of "Seinfeld" have awaited, with bated breath, the unveiling of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's attempt at her own sitcom, "Watching Ellie" (NBC, Tuesdays at 8:30). But, like Michael Richards and Jason Alexander before her, the multi-faceted actress has found out what Shakespeare had already told us through Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Which is to say, success is a mystery that consists of countless ingredients, and most of them cannot be found in a recipe book.

One ingredient Ms. Louis-Dreyfus does not lack is talent. She has an enviable measure of it. If talent could carry a show, "Watching Ellie" would work because the star is pouring every last ounce of her reserves into the effort.

Alas, it does not suffice. Something like her patented laughter, used so sparingly, so effectively in "Seinfeld," becomes an irritating mannerism. Resorting to excessive exploitation of cleavage is the very opposite to the one-time ingenious use of her upper-body endowment for entrapping an NBC president who had caught "George" ogling his teen-age daughter.

Reactions tend to be individual. In my case, it happens to be annoyance at the success of, say, Ally McBeal - a cast of modest ability acting out adolescent situations and fantasies. On the other hand, it's downright sadness when genuine talent is seen withering against the clock, trapped in a void.

For the bitter truth about "Watching Ellie," at least based on the first three episodes, is the absence of a single idea worth exhibiting in public. Strange: "Seinfeld" featured four immature characters, engaged frequently in brilliant dialogue, portrayed with consummate professionalism. Its abortive spin-offs feature the immaturity of their makers.

Whereas our instincts will usually tell us whether or not something works, we are thankfully ignorant of why something works in the intangible world. Fierce disagreement about this last statement is possibly the most constant divider between typical 60s people and the rest of us.

Most 60s people like to think they know how everything works, whether tangible or intangible. Consequently, they come up with a theory for all. It then follows that they assume to have the capacity for comprehending, recreating, reproducing whatever is at hand.

Yet the case may be made that our desire to create the exceptional, combined with the harsh reality of having to try and try again without the slightest guarantee of success, has been the engine, the motivation - and a true blessing. In terms of television sitcoms, one might conclude that lasting success occurs when the total is greater than the sum of the parts. Thus, however potent the parts, they do not necessarily convert to another hit.

The best example for the forgoing is the original Cosby Show. Not one member of that irresistible family has succeeded in something else, not even Bill Cosby himself - enormous talent, vast experience, fabulous riches and all.

Perhaps this is a good place to pay homage to the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, whose participants went on to popular programs of their own. They did not attempt an extension of their original character. The dumb newscaster became a cartoonist and head of a complicated but charming family; the somewhat boring co-worker returned as the captain of a celebrated cruise ship; the annoying star of the cooking show turned into a Golden Girl.

Those of us who spend a lifetime in the company of great composers learn these lessons about the unique, the exceptional, rather early. The very low number of truly great composers of classical music - whatever your taste, you are unlikely to name more than, say, two dozen - first makes one ask: why so few? Then, upon reflection, one realizes the surprise ought to be that they existed at all. This is not to compare sitcoms to a Mozart opera, but excellence exists in different categories.

The unfading appeal of a Dick Van Dyke Show, a Family Ties, a "Seinfeld" will never be easy to replicate. We could improve the odds, though. For a start, we can restore the respect for excellence that has served for millennia as the incentive to excel. Next, we might restore our awareness of categories. In other words, a spy thriller is not on par with a Shakespeare play.

There must be some correlation between the silly 60s idea that everything has the same value, and the epidemic of failure produced by gifted people.

Open your eyes, Julie, start watching Ellie, and help us sort this out.