[13 March 2006]
I admit that I am one of five people in the U.S. who never watched Seinfeld. I found its focus on “nothing” self-indulgent, its characters annoying. Which means that, even though Elaine seemed to me the one sometimes bright spot, I might not be the most sympathetic critic to review Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s newest attempt to get back in the limelight, The New Adventures of Old Christine.
It’s nearly impossible to break free of the stratospheric success of a “cultural touchstone” like Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld has not even tried, appearing since 1998 only in a few cameos here and there (SNL in 1999, Dilbert in 2000). Michael Richards and Jason Alexander have pretty much flopped in everything they’ve done since. But, god bless her, Julia Louis-Dreyfus keeps on tryin’. Her first post-Seinfeld sitcom, Watching Ellie, held on for two seasons, despite critical pans and few viewers. Now she’s back in The New Adventures of Old Christine, a horrible title if ever there were one, and despite some promising moments in the first few episodes, the show seems destined for the same fate as Ellie.
Dreyfus plays a 40-something single mother, divorced for just over two years, owner of a “women’s only, 30-minute workout gym.” Christine lives with her slacker-y brother Matthew (Hamish Linklater), and leaves middle of the night phone messages to herself, from the banal (“Stop buying Nyquil, I think it keeps you awake at night”) to the neurotic (“Stop eating sugar; it’s not a substitute for love”). This tendency to talk (to herself) extends to any situation where she feels anxious: she strings words and barely connected thoughts together until she’s out of breath.
The pilot episode centers on her son “Little” Richard’s (Trevor Gagnon) first day of third grade at his new snooty private school. Richie is a precocious sitcom moppet. Once he and Christine get to the Westbridge School, he’s immediately shocked at the difference from his previous public school. “Where are all the black kids?” he inquires. Christine shushes him: “There was one in the brochure, I’m sure he’s around here somewhere.”
Christine is immediately set-upon by the school’s two Aryan uber-moms, Marly (Tricia O’Kelley) and Lindsay (Alex Kapp Horner), who sniff out the fresh meat. They list off their many children’s many accomplishments, express astonishment at the fact that Christine works full time, and refuse to believe that her divorce from Richard (Clark Gregg) was amicable.
Great, so she’s a working-class fish-out-of-water and a single mom desperately trying to find love again, the thrust of the show being that Christine finds out Richard in seeing someone new named—you guessed it—Christine (Emily Rutherfurd). The sexist stereotyping already looms larger: despite Old Christine’s successes in raising her son, maintaining a friendly co-parenting relationship with Richard, providing for her brother Matthew, and owning a small-business, her failure at finding love annuls all, and is subtended by the fact that she ain’t getting any younger.
Old Christine gets marginally better in subsequent episodes. Two (“Supertramp”) and Three (“Open Water”) settle into a kind of rhythm that allows Dreyfus to display the physical comedy at which she is so adroit. Even better are the guest cameos (one of the major problems of Old Christine is its generally lackluster supporting cast). Andy Richter appears in “Supertramp,” playing Stan, “Sad Dad,” with whom Christine shares a one-night stand after she realizes it has been nearly three years since she’s had sex, and Richard advises her to “get one under her belt.” Richter has perfected his schlemiel shtick, and he’s even better when Stan turns the tables on Christine. When she tries to make a final break with him, Stan beats her to the punch, telling Christine she’s “too fast” for him. Wanda Sykes appears in “Open Water,” in what I can only hope is a recurring role, as Christine’s brassy friend Barbara, who sets her up on a blind date from hell.
While The New Adventures of Old Christine isn’t the worst sitcom to premiere in recent years, it repeats the same old saws concerning women of a certain age. Why are all 40-something women lovelorn failures? Why is a woman’s success in life measured by her ability to catch and keep a man? Murphy Brown eschewed such chestnuts for 10 years, and shifted the cultural zeitgeist, if only for a little while. It seems that shift was short-lived, and what Susan Faludi has called the “backlash” against women is still in full effect, if so estimable an actor as Julia Louis-Dreyfus can’t get a character on air who even tries to break free.