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'Ellie': Nothing Much Works / Louis-Dreyfus, alum of 'Seinfeld,' founders in her retooled sitcom

In its original incarnation 13 months ago, "Watching

Ellie" had style and energy but wasn't particularly funny. Now it's back, and

the results of an extensive overhaul are undeniable. It's not so stylish or

energetic anymore, and it's still not particularly funny.

Bummer. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a gifted comic actress, but try as she might

- and she seems almost desperate to wring laughs out of her material here -

she is only slightly more successful as a sitcom lead than were her former

"Seinfeld" cast mates Michael Richards and Jason Alexander. The "'Seinfeld'

curse" strikes again? Nah. There's no such thing. Louis-Dreyfus and the others

are just facing life without Larry David, whose misanthropic genius now

animates his own HBO comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," as it once did their old

show.

For viewers who watched "Ellie" the first time around, the most obvious

difference will be the absence of the ticking "real- time" clock. The producers

apparently recognized that the gimmick is only funny in the context of an

anti-terrorist melodrama.

The most significant change is that the revamped "Ellie" is primarily a

standard, three-camera sitcom, like "Seinfeld" or "Frasier," not a filmed

comedy in the style of "Malcolm in the Middle." That means verbal humor has to

carry the show, but the words in tonight's second-season debut tend to be lame

and lamer. Sample exchange:

"I need a date," Ellie whines.

"How about that doctor that asked you out?" her younger sister Susan

(Lauren Bowles) suggests.

"While giving me a pelvic exam?" Ellie bellows.

The problem isn't just rim-shot jokes, though. It's the whole conception of

this comedy's situation, which is riddled with illogic and overstocked with

annoying characters. Louis-Dreyfus is still Ellie Riggs, a singer with a jazz

combo struggling to land gigs beyond small Los Angeles clubs that could barely

support a lounge pianist. In next week's episode, she's so broke, she has to

swallow her pretensions and sing in the subway for pitiable philistines who

ignore her jazz stylings but can't open their wallets fast enough when she

chirps John Denver tunes. Yet we not only see her having a session with her

psychiatrist, but we also hear her speak of having multiple weekly sessions.

Since when did Los Angeles become a public-assistance paradise?

During its hiatus, Ellie has shed one of her unfunny neighbors - a

stereotypical big Swede who had an unrequited crush on her. But now there's a

spacey landlord (Fred Willard) and his niece, an Icelandic goddess who plays

tennis for UCLA but lives off-campus with him to escape the temptation to

indulge her voracious sexual appetite on the student body and weaken her serve.

Seriously.

Left over from season one is Ellie's guitarist Ben (Darren Boyd), a not

particularly bright married man with whom she's having a guilt-ridden,

off-and-on affair, and her ex-boyfriend Edgar (Steve Carell), a vulgar twerp

who makes George Costanza look as idealistic as Mr. Rogers.

Ellie herself is not particularly sympathetic. In tonight's episode, she

uncorks a torrent of righteous indignation on a well-heeled gent who has parked

his car in a handicapped space at a restaurant, then shows her spineless,

obsequious side when she gets inside and realizes he's a talent-booker. It's an

awkward, unflattering moment that might qualify as Seinfeldian if it were

funnier. From this vantage point, it's just grudging and graceless, as is the

show in general.

REVIEW

WATCHING ELLIE. Former "Seinfeld" co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus' solo sitcom

returns to NBC prime time, retooled but not improved. Second season premiere

tonight at 9:30 on WNBC/4.

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