Thursday, October 31, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "The Wheel in Space"

The fifth of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen" and "Death to the Daleks."

Revisiting "The Wheel in Space," in preparation for this post, made me sad -- not the reaction I was expecting. "The Wheel in Space" is a largely ignored serial, one that I realized during my latest rewatch is even better than I'd remembered. But I was also reminded that a key reason it's under-appreciated is because four of its six parts are missing. And that is to say, the visuals are missing. But here's the thing: the audio is still there. And there are amazing reconstructions: Loose Cannon (obviously) did one, and I see, online, at least two others that I like. And Wendy Padbury narrated the audio book. So there are all kinds of ways to "watch" and appreciate "Wheel in Space" even though only two of the six episodes survive in their entirety, but I've come to realize that some fans -- even some diehard ones -- won't, because it calls for the kind of viewing effort we're not used to these days.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "Death to the Daleks"

The fourth of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark" and "Delta and the Bannermen."

"Death to the Daleks" is the Dalek story for those who hate the Daleks. It's the Pertwee serial for those who hate the Pertwee era. It's the Terry Nation script for those who hate Terry Nation. By my rough calculations, that's approximately one in every seven billion people, which I guess would be me. For the other folks on the planet, most of whom love the Daleks, many of whom like the Pertwee era, and from what I can gather, at least six of whom think Terry Nation was a great writer, "Death to the Daleks" is one of the nadirs of the entire Doctor Who run.

I kind of like it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "Delta and the Bannermen"

The third of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences with "Terminus," then continues with "The Ark."

"In the end it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about you. You have to be exactly who and what you want to be. Most everyone is floating along on phony public relations... and for what?! Appearances. Appearances don't count for diddly. In the end, all that really matter is what was true, and truly felt -- and how we treated one another. And that's it."
-- Julia Sugarbaker, Designing Women

*****

Once upon a time, at the dawn of rock 'n' roll, at a holiday camp in South Wales, a boy named Billy spied a woman named Delta -- and it was love at first sight. And that evening, before they'd even had a chance to speak, he serenaded her from the dining-hall stage with a suitable new standard, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" And later that night, he stood outside her door, a bouquet of flowers in one hand and slicking back his hair with the other, and opened it, only to discover --

Monday, October 21, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "The Ark"

The second of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences here, with "Terminus."

It's easy to tell a fellow Whovian that you like "The Ark": they think you're talking about "The Ark in Space." They nod, say "me too" and go on their way. But occasionally, one of them stops, as if to ask, "Did I hear you right?", and warily doubles back: "Not the one with the Monoids?" And you gulp, "Um, yah," and they add, shaking their heads as if they're questioning your sanity, "The ones with the ping-pong balls in their mouths?"

And then you realize you have to provide a coherent, reasoned justification for liking a TV serial that features creatures holding ping-pong balls in their mouths.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Classic Doctor Who: in defense of "Terminus"

In the few years since I began watching Classic Doctor Who, it's become apparent that there are quite a few serials I like more than others do -- I mean, way more. I thought I'd call attention to some of the serials that I see as unfairly maligned, and I'd choose one serial for each Classic Doctor. And I'd start with a neglected serial that I consider one of the top-25 Classic Who stories ever telecast. So let's start with two lines that pretty much sum up the "Terminus" experience:

Nyssa: What are they going to do with us?
Inga: Supposedly cure us, but I rather think they're going to let us die.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

WKRP in Cincinnati season 4

We remember WKRP in Cincinnati, the sitcom that aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982, as being better than it was. We remember "Turkeys Away," the ultimate in promotional-stunts-gone-wrong, as live turkeys are dropped from a helicopter, "hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement"; we remember the show that (rightly) made stars of supporting players Howard Hesseman and Loni Anderson; we remember its subversive tone and its striking characters -- we remember all that, and we think of it as an instant classic. But from the start, it was an erratic show, and among its 90 episodes are nearly as many misfires as triumphs. It was a show CBS desperately needed, but never knew what to do with. It was a show designed for two actors that ended up being about two others. It had a control freak at the helm who, judging from the evidence, did his best work when he let others do their jobs. If it holds up after 35 years (and it does), it starts with the original casting director Bob Manahan: the characters themselves were well-conceived (and if they weren't, they grew into characters who were well-developed), but the actors made them memorable. It's one of the best matches of character and casting we've had on American television.

As a reminder, or a précis for the uninitiated: WKRP is a struggling 5000-watt radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio (1530 on the AM dial); they've engaged a new program director, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) to shore up the ratings, and he's decided to change the format from Easy Listening to Rock and Roll -- much to the chagrin of the station's bumbling but well-meaning general manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), who'd rather be fishing; sales director Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), with the plaid, polyester suits and disregard for his marital vows; and Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), the nerd-of-a-news-director with a talent for mangling his on-air copy:

Les [on air, reading]: Monster lizard ravages East Coast. Mayors in five New England cities have issued emergency requests for federal disaster relief as a result of a giant lizard that descended on the East Coast last night. Officials say that this lizard, the worst since ’78, has devastated transportation, disrupted communication, and left many hundreds homeless.
Johnny: Monster lizard?
Les: The wire service never lies.
Johnny: Les, the “b” is out on the printer. It’s monster blizzard.

Embracing the format change are the early-morning DJ, drug-culture carryover Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman in an inspired bit of counterculture casting: Hesseman had worked as a DJ before he became an actor, and had been part of the San Francisco-based improv group The Committee in the '60s and '70s), and the nighttime DJ, Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), one of creator Hugh Wilson's two attempts at countering stereotypes. Venus, as first seen, has the flamboyant attire and manner that marked so many depictions of African-American men in the late '70s. (WKRP premiered in 1978, the same year Esther Rolle returned to Good Times to save it from Jimmie "Dy-no-mite" Walker.) But it turned out Venus's clothes and demeanor were part of his on-air act, and beneath lay someone ruminative, well-read, soulful and conservative.

The other character designed to upend expectations: the station's receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), WKRP's answer to all the dumb blondes clogging the airwaves. Jennifer was as blonde and as beautiful as any of her TV sisters, but she was also bright, articulate, perceptive, and occasionally seemed to be running the station single-handedly. (President Reagan, she tells us in a 1982 episode, offered her Secretary of the Treasury, but she declined; she may have been kidding.) Completing the ensemble was the retiring but determined and ambitious Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), who handled traffic and continuity. The characters of Andy, Johnny and Bailey are pretty much established at the start (although Andy doesn't really become interesting until Season 4, when he acquires a more ruthless side); Carlson, Herb and Les evolve through the course of the first season; and Jennifer and Venus take even a bit longer than that. (Critics initially tore into Anderson and Reid for how they looked, not how they acted; they presumed the roles were designed to reinforce stereotypes, not counter them -- so the writers had to work a little harder with those two.) Arguably, it's not until a third of the way into the second season that the characters all settle into the ones we remember today.

I was trying to figure out, if I had to recommend one season of WKRP, which season that would be, and oh Lord, it's tough. The first season is full of issues. Hugh Wilson wanted to do character-based comedy (it was, after all, an MTM production, where he had cut his teeth), while CBS wanted more light-hearted "radio station" episodes, particularly ones that targeted younger audiences. (This was just a few years after CBS had been supplanted in the ratings by ABC's aggressively kid-friendly programming.) And the show was ostensibly about Andy Travis (only Gary Sandy and Gordon Jump received top billing in the first season; everyone else was consigned to the closing credits), but Travis -- with his aw-shucks demeanor, his too-tight jeans and coiffed hair -- was arguably the least interesting character of the bunch. CBS premiered it in a kiss-of-death time-slot, Mondays at 8, opposite ABC's Welcome Back, Kotter and NBC's still formidable Little House on the Prairie, and it tanked. The network pulled it from the schedule in November, and "relaunched" it in January behind one of their top shows, M*A*S*H, where it soared. Airing after M*A*S*H allowed Wilson to complement that show's tone with lower-key ensemble comedy, which is what he'd wanted all along. But of the fourteen episodes completed before the show was yanked from the schedule, only eight had aired, which meant of the remaining fourteen episodes to air, six were pre-hiatus and eight post-. They were scattered seemingly randomly through the remainder of the season -- sometimes one old, one new -- and the result is distressingly schizophrenic: a season that keeps lurching between MTM character comedy and Garry Marshall screwball. There are some great episodes -- aside from the aforementioned "Turkeys Away," there's "I Want to Keep My Baby," "Tornado" and "Who Is Gordon Sims?" -- but ultimately, Season 1 is a show still finding itself.

Season 2 sees a host of new writers join the staff: some I took to instantly (Steve Marshall, Dan Gunzelman), some I grew to like (Peter Torokvei), others never won me over (Steve Kampmann). Torokvei and Kampmann came via Second City and SCTV; they pitched some story ideas to Wilson, and he bit. They were sketch-comedy writers, which is exactly where WKRP wasn't heading. (The quintessential Kampmann episode -- Season 3's "Hotel Oceanview," in which Herb, away on a business trip, carries on with a woman who turns out to be transgender -- is actually taken from a Second City sketch he wrote.) Torokvei and Kampmann's first script, "Sparky," guest-starring real-life baseball manager Sparky Anderson, was written because they wanted to meet Sparky Anderson; that was the episode's justification, the furthest thing from character comedy, and you can practically hear the MTM kitten purring in its grave. One of my favorite episodes comes from Season 2 -- "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" -- as do many of the episodes I hate most: "Baseball," "Bad Risk," "Sparky," "Les's Groupie," "The Doctor's Daughter." The cast gets more assured in Season 2 -- by midseason, they have their acts down pat -- but WKRP still seems like a show in search of direction: the sophisticated wit of "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" immediately followed by the juvenile antics of "Sparky" pretty much epitomizes the work-still-in-progress feel that plagues Season 2.

In Season 3, the writers seem to pull together, but Wilson starts to crumble. The season starts with "The Airplane Show," with Les doing traffic reports from a World War I biplane piloted by a crazy war veteran; it's a fitting start for a season that never quite feels grounded. You know you're not in good shape early in Season 3 when the series' creator pens an episode called "Jennifer Moves" (the season's second episode) and then can't figure out how to make that scenario interesting. (And it's not like the "lead character moves" scenario can't be an entertaining one. When "Charlene Buys a House" on Designing Women, it's such a triumph of smart silliness that EP Pam Norris rightly chooses it as one of that season's Emmy submissions; when "Mary Moves Out" on the The Mary Tyler Moore Show, David Lloyd gently mocks the repetitive nature of TV sitcoms, where conventions and catch-phrases are like comfort food, and turns it into a sad classic.) The first third of Season 3 seems aimless, the middle third gets back on track, and then, as the season end approaches, it becomes some other series altogether: a string of "special episodes." Wilson admits that, by that time, he was burned out, and drama simply came easier than laughs, so we get episodes about alcoholism and censorship and long-lost parents and domestic abuse. Some of it is well-done, but it makes for what WKRP fan and expert Jaime Weinman accurately called "a rather weird season (where the show's tone changed radically with every episode, and [much] of the humor became a little offbeat at times)." At its worst, Season 3 is off-putting; you watch and go, "Shouldn't they have ironed out the kinks by now?"

Wilson claims that up to that point, no matter whose name was on a given script, he himself had pretty much penned every word. That's what he says, but it's hard to imagine, since the credited writer's voice always seems to come through. (There's no mistaking a Steve Marshall script for a Steven Kampmann script.) But Wilson also notes that he was less hands-on in Season 4, and it shows -- for the better. Kampmann is gone by Season 4, but Torokvei, Marshall and Gunzelman remain -- as does Blake Hunter, the best of the bunch, and the only writer (aside from Wilson) who was on the show all four seasons. And Lissa Levin is there too, Hugh's former production secretary, who joined as a staff writer in Season 3. It's a good, solid team, who all seem to be writing the same show. It arguably takes WKRP three years to find its footing (not that unusual, especially for an MTM show: it took The Mary Tyler Moore Show two years and an overhaul; it took Newhart two years and two overhauls). And here's the caveat: I didn't enjoy the fourth season of WKRP originally nearly as much as I do now. But then I didn't enjoy Season 3 of Knots Landing nearly so much at the time either -- and they both aired during the 1981-82 season, so I have to imagine I was just having a bad year. (I was fresh out of college, and jobless.) Season 4 is rarely as funny as it thinks it is, but it's rarely less than entertaining. There are only two or three truly bad episodes, and for WKRP, that's sort of a miracle. Season 1 has a spotty premise, some undeveloped characters, and a tear in its fabric about halfway through; Season 2 has some new writers still getting a feel for the show; Season 3 is unfocused, with an uncomfortable shift towards the (melo)dramatic near the end. Season 4 has none of these problems. It's the most rewatchable season largely because it's issue-free. And being issue-free lets it soar.

So after eight paragraphs of preamble, let's discuss what's right about Season 4. It starts with a bang, a two-parter called "An Explosive Affair," that manages to be both funny and timely (and sadly, timeless), as a terrorist group called Black Monday calls in a bomb threat at the station. And from there, except for a midseason lull, you're never more than a couple weeks from a great episode: if it's not the next one, it's the one after that. (That's not damning with faint praise, either; I'd say much the same thing about The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 6, which I like quite a lot.) But it's not just episode quality that defines Season 4. The characters grow fuller, richer, more rounded, without resorting to the "special episode" solution that marred Season 3. Each one gets, as with most ensemble shows, at least one spotlight episode, and those episodes manage to be among the series' funniest, but also among the character's most challenging, or revealing: whether it's Jennifer serving as the executrix for a departed gentleman friend ("Jennifer and the Will"); or Bailey committing an on-air breach of ethics while reporting on her experiences at a children's ward ("Dear Liar"); or Andy paying a price for the money he's secured from Carlson's mother for station improvements ("Love, Exciting and New"). Whether it's Herb facing his own mortality during a building "Fire," or Johnny pondering the ravages of time in a business dominated by youth ("Rumors"). Whether it's Mr. Carlson wrestling with how to respond to an upcoming "Union" vote; or the inflexible Les giving in to new experiences when Herb signs him up for the "I'll Take Romance" dating service (which, of course, turns out to be a front for prostitution); or Venus fretting that he's lost sight of his heritage when an urban magazine requests an interview ("Changes"). Splendid episodes, all.

That said, if you watch Season 4, you can skip "You Can't Go Out of Town Again" and "The Impossible Dream," and your life will be better for it. And you'll watch the severely undernourished "Circumstantial Evidence" with the knowledge that it was supposed to be a two-parter, but CBS got cold feet, and you'll forgive it. And you'll wonder why the season's one episode to feature both Loni Anderson and Howard Hesseman (arguably the series' only episode to wed them in an A-plot), "Jennifer and Johnny's Charity," never reaches the heights it should, particularly since it's written by the series' best writer -- but you'll enjoy watching them share screen time so much that you'll let it pass. And mostly, you'll do your best to excuse the rampant homophobia, which is incessant and uncomfortable. WKRP had always mined people's discomfort with homosexuality for easy laughs; this was the era of Three's Company, after all: that's what shows did. You expect WKRP to be better, but it's not. (Its third episode aired, "Les on a Ledge," is all about Les's suicidal response to rumors that he's gay. I remember when it first aired, TV Guide extolled that it wasn't really about homosexuality, but more about the damage caused by rumor and innuendo, like Hellman's Children's Hour. No, it's really about homosexuality: to be specific, how being seen as gay would be the worst thing in the world.) Season 4 goes for the cheap gay laugh every chance it gets: at one point, three times in five episodes. The message is: we've restored the black man's dignity, and detonated the "dumb blonde" myth, but fags are still fair game. (Staff writer Peter Torokvei transitioned into PJ Torokvei in the 1990's; I do wonder if she ever looked back on her years on WKRP and regretted the steady stream of gay jokes -- but then, when WKRP aired, and for years after, there was no such thing as an LGBT community.)

But as you watch Season 4, you'll put up with -- and maybe forgive -- all that, as you revel in the barrage of memorable lines:

Johnny [on air, from "The Union"]: WKRP, with your generous help and support, has now climbed to 10th place in the Cincinnati market. If I sound emotional about this, it's because I can still hear my father saying: "Son, no matter what you decide to do in this life, always try to come in 10th."

Bailey [to Herb, from "Rumors"]: Continuity is so important. Thank you for always being a jerk.

Les [from "Jennifer and the Will"]: What is an executrix?
Herb: I don't know. High heels and a whole lot of leather, something like that.

Bailey [from "Changes"]: Have you noticed that you can't tell what color someone is over the phone?
Venus: I guess not.
Bailey: I mean, when I heard Black Life Magazine, I was expecting him to be like "Hey, little mama, you tell the dude I'll be here at fo'." But he didn't. He sounded just like you!
Venus: What does she mean "just like me?" I'm black, I'm from the street, I can say "fo'!"
Johnny: That's right, Kingfish. You is, and you does. But the problem is, you sound neutral.
Venus: Neutral. You mean "white."
Johnny: Well, don't worry, pal. I've heard you say "upside your head," things like that. You can pass for black.
Venus: I don't want to "pass for black," I want to be black! What the hell am I saying?

Jennifer [from "I'll Take Romance"]: Les, relationships don't happen every day. You have to wait for them. But just because you think you have a relationship that you really don't have, doesn't mean you're not worthy of having one -- if it's real.
Les: Are you trying to tell me that I'm not worthy of Lorraine?
Jennifer: No... I'm trying to tell you that Lorraine is not worthy of you.
Les: She cost $200.
Jennifer: No, she charges $200. [a pause] Les, I'm talking about the oldest profession.
Les: Lorraine's a farmer?

And one sturdy season arc holds it all together. Andy was hired in the pilot to save the station, which was languishing in last place. At the start of Season 4, they've shot up to tenth place in the Cincinnati market, and by the season's end, they're sixth. The station gets more successful, and it's a recurring motif that grounds the season. At the heart of Season 4 is the question of how these eight people deal with unexpected success: through talks of unions, through increased workloads and added pressures, through rumors of re-staffing and reshuffling. And even when it's not the station's status at the heart of an episode, there's often the broader theme of people finding themselves charged with responsibility they're simply not prepared for. The question that underlies the first three seasons is: how do you raise the ratings at a radio station? It's a nice idea, but aside from countless promotions and Andy poking his head in the DJ booth from time to time and yelling "Johnny, play the hits," there's no easy way to dramatize it. But the question underlying the fourth (and final season) is: how do you maintain a successful radio station, particularly when half the staff is incompetent? How do you embrace success without letting it change you, or worse, corrupt you? And that is something that can be dramatized, and is, over and over again, perhaps never more persuasively than in one of the series' most unassuming episodes, Season 4's "To Err Is Human." It's a Lissa Levin script, and the premise is simple: Herb was supposed to hire a photographer to shoot Venus, for a series of shampoo ads; instead, Herb decides to pocket the money and shoot the ad himself -- and accidentally substitutes a shot of himself at a family BBQ:

Mr. Carlson: Well, Herb, what do you think? What we have here is an ad for Soul Suds Shampoo, a shampoo that's exclusively marketed to the hip black customer. Am I right?
Herb: Yes, sir.
Mr. Carlson: Then why are we looking at a picture of this really idiotic-looking white man?

It's as standard a sitcom premise as you'll find -- the screw-up that must be made right. But underneath, there are complex (often unspoken) workplace issues. Because, you see, Mr. Carlson wants to fire Herb for his mistake, except that Mr. Carlson is frankly no better at his job than Herb. And ultimately the ones who have to make it right are Andy and Jennifer, simply because they can -- except because neither has the authority to do so, they end up working at cross-purposes and making it worse. The whole episode is ultimately about trying to save the job of a man who deserves to be fired, simply because -- in work language -- he's "family." And why not? Because just as Mr. Carlson shows, by his willingness to step it up and terminate Herb, that he himself can be responsible and even formidable when it's called for, the possibility exists that perhaps Herb can, too -- unless, of course, he can't. But you save someone because that possibility exists, and because they're "family" -- oh, and because of one more thing:

Jennifer: Mr. Sherman, WKRP is a very unusual radio station. We hire some people that otherwise couldn't get jobs at another radio station.
The Clientt: Like that Tarlek fellow, right?
Jennifer: Exactly like that Tarlek fellow. I don't think I would be spreading tales if I were to tell you that he probably couldn't get another job in the city, let alone the state. And, well... I like him. It's crazy, but I like him.

You save someone because you like them. You like them even if they've hounded you and harassed you and hit on you for four years. You like them because, in Season 4, as the writing get deeper, things like old hostilities seem trivial somehow.

But there's more to that scene; it continues:

Jennifer: I'm the one who sent him over here, and I don't want him to get fired.
The Client: So you took it upon yourself to come down here and change my mind?
Jennifer: Yes.
The Client: I can't help you.
Jennifer: You're very self-assured -- I like that.
The Client: Thank you.
Jennifer: I also like a little compassion.
The Client: I'm a perfectionist. When you're handicapped, you're always trying to show the world that you can be a little better.
Jennifer: I know all about that.
The Client: You do?
Jennifer: Mm-hmm. I'm a pretty blonde, so when people meet me, they naturally think I'm dumb.
The Client: Oh, I didn't think so.
Jennifer: Well, that's because you can see through all that. And I'm sure you can see through me. I came down here because I thought a pretty face could help you change your mind.

And of course, her candor does prompt the client to change his mind. And suddenly a screwball situation involving two characters (Herb and Venus) turns into a character study for another (Jennifer), which offhand I can't think of a precedent for in sitcom history. But more than that, the episode illustrates -- as so much of Season 4 does, confidently -- the growing pains of a newly successful radio station: where the strong have to look after the weak; where the weak will vow to change, and probably can't; where change is inevitable and gratifying and terrifying, and rumors rampant and indistinguishable from fact. Where everyone is suddenly in new, uncharted territory where even the best will fail -- but they'll fail together, and with any luck, they might just fail up. WKRP Season 4 is a lovely season, and well worth the three years it took the writers to get there. I recommend it highly.


Want more WKRP in Cincinnati? I delve more deeply into writer Blake Hunter's work here, with a detailed look at one of his best scripts, "Jennifer and the Will." And if you enjoy revisiting hit shows, I delve into Rhoda Season 3 and Bewitched Season 2, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you have a preference for dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The New Adventures of Old Christine:
invasion of the Raymond writers

It's startling to revisit the first few episodes of Old Christine: she seems so competent. If you watch the whole series, and watch the lead character shed brain cells with every passing season, you forget how the show was conceived: as a single, working mother trying to cope in a high-pressure world. Leaving herself voice messages in the middle of the night, of things she had to accomplish the next day (most memorably: "shave things"), she was instantly relatable: there's too much to do in the modern world, and creator Kari Lizer got that. Christine Campbell was the calm center in the storm. When she got set up with blind dates, they were the crazies. Her ex-husband was a horny adolescent; her employee at the gym she owned was a ditz. Christine was the responsible one. It's a drag being the responsible one, but Lizer also made it deeply funny, because there amidst all the crazies was Christine, trying to do it all: to be a good mother, run a successful business, enjoy an active social life. She even had political causes: in one episode, she's determined to bring a little diversity to her son's whitebred private school. But there aren't enough hours in the day, as Christine learns, and however hard you try, the world is stacked against you. When she tries to instill some tolerance in Richie's school and sponsor a black family for admission, she discovers the family hate gays. That's classic Christine, a point echoed in the Season 4 episode "He Ain't Heavy," when her friend Barb describes the trajectory of Christine's life: she's a modern-day Sisyphus, the one who keeps pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down and crush her. But Christine keeps pushing that boulder, and that's why we like her.

By the series' end, Christine has been so dumbed-down that she gets trapped in a subway station, and loses her passport on a flight to the Bahamas, and, oh yes, gets her foot stuck in the john. It's a fate that befalls lots of sitcom characters over the course of a long-running series: it's easier to write for people who are lazy and inept rather than driven and well-meaning. Certainly it's easier to mine laughs. Let me mention that I think The New Adventures of Old Christine is a smashing TV series. I knew it was good when it first aired; in syndication, I've realized it's a classic. But it's a very uneven classic, at its worst when Christine strays furthest from her original conception -- and when she strays, starting in Season 2, it's mostly due to the invasion of the Raymond writers.

Jennifer Crittenden, Lew Schneider, Aaron Shure: they all came to Christine from Everybody Loves Raymond, and what did they do?  They turned her into Ray Barone.

Old Christine starts strong. It's a splendid pilot, and a solid (short) first season. And, as so many sitcoms do, it catches fire at the start of Season 2: the resolution of the Season 1 cliffhanger, the introduction of Blair Underwood as Mr. Harris, the priceless two-parter where Old Christine dates New Christine's father. Then Jennifer Crittenden pens her first script -- it's the fourth episode of the second season -- and it's the first time the series feels "off." Richard and New Christine have taken Richie to church, and Christine objects; her objections are voiced, but they're never convincing. They seem random and hypocritical. (Footnote: Ray Barone, in season 4, didn't want to go to church either.)  And here's the kicker: as obsessed as Christine is with keeping her son out of church, she's more obsessed with locating a sandwich shop she visited once and now can't find -- that's how skewed and self-centered her priorities become under Crittenden. And in the requisite scene near the end when Christine attends church, she makes a fool of herself. She can't sit still, or accomplish the simplest task, and winds up disrupting the service -- it's Ray stuffing food down his pants at the PTA meeting. Where is the valiant working mother?  Where is the crusader?  When Crittenden takes the reins, she's gone. Season 2 is a very good one: Lizer and her writing team -- Jeff Astrof, Adam Barr, Jonathan Goldstein and Katie Palmer -- rarely miss a beat. The only missteps: every time Crittenden pens an episode, whether it's the forgettable "Playdate With Destiny" (in which Christine, crushing on Richie's African-American teacher, stumbles over the word "black" for what feels like an eternity -- you keep waiting for Robert Barone to show and up and say, as he would to his brother Raymond, "Why do you even open your mouth?") or the misguided "Strange Bedfellows," where Christine, who less than a year ago had campaigned for ethnic diversity, suddenly doesn't support causes -- or understand them -- or vote -- or even know where to vote. 

The best early Christine scripts develop the rich relationships set up so neatly in Lizer's pilot, and often they do so not just with humor but with heart. You couldn't claim that Goldstein and Palmer were the strongest Christine writers, but every time they pen a script, it seems grounded. Goldstein's "Mission: Impossible" (in which Christine and Richard assert their influence over Richie) and "Let Him Eat Cake" (in which Christine and New Christine assert their influence over Richard) aren't even among my top 10 episodes, but bless them, the characters feel convincing, their concerns are taken seriously. And they're true to the irony at the heart of the series: you'll do your best, and you'll probably fail. That's the revolutionary message that early Christine turns into memorable comedy. And indeed, a lot of Palmer's scripts are genuinely memorable, in particular "Endless Shrimp, Endless Night" (the first episode to really delve into Christine's one-sided relationship with her brother Matthew), full of quotable lines, and when Goldstein and Palmer collaborate on a script, "My Big Fat Sober Wedding" (in which Christine resolves to be the designated driver at a friend's wedding), it's the highlight of late Season 2. (If Julia Louis-Dreyfuss had submitted that episode -- or "Come to Papa Jeff" -- for Emmy consideration, instead of Crittenden's "Playdate With Destiny," she might have had a shot at her second consecutive Emmy.) Warmth, credulity, and a refusal to stoop to crude or easy laughs: features of the first two seasons that nearly vanish when the Raymond writers descend en masse in Season 3.

Season 3 of Christine was a truncated season, just 10 episodes airing during and after the 2008 writer's strike, and it's a disaster. (I'm still not sure how the show got renewed for Season 4, or how the mediocre quality of the scripts led CBS to consider it strong enough to lead off a new sitcom block on Wednesday night.) Schneider and Shure come aboard, joining Crittenden, and the show inches ever closer to a late-Raymond mentality. There had always been a incestuous undercurrent to Christine, but it was blithe. (In Season 2's peerless two-parter, "The Answer is Maybe" and "Come to Papa Jeff," Christine and Matthew have a half-dozen moments that play up their codependence, but they're innocent, and all the funnier for that.) There's nothing's blithe about Season 3; all the sexual innuendo is written out instead of leaving us to guess at it. We get Matthew and Christine dry-humping on a rock-climbing wall (writer: Shure), and Christine dreaming about making out with her brother (writer: Crittenden), who's slept with her best friend Barb (writer: Shure). It's one very uncomfortable season; it's like watching Raymond Season 7, when the writers -- among them, Schneider and Shure -- drain the warmth out of the series, and what was once subtext now passes for plot, as in the execrable "Counseling," when Ray reveals that he'd like a mother for a wife, and Robert rewards him with a lifesize cutout of Marie in a wedding dress. 

It's not just the sexual component that overwhelms Season 3; it's the full transformation of Christine into Ray Barone. In the most objectionable episode of the bunch, Christine meets a single father at Richie's school, a new arrival, and explains to him how to get out of doing volunteer work. In two seasons, she's become the very character the show was satirizing with its "meanie moms" -- the proud do-nothing (the new father even calls her a "meanie mom"). And the writer of that episode?  Crittenden, of course; once again she's writing Christine as Raymond. The Woman Who Tried to Do It All has morphed into The Woman Who Tries to Do Nothing. (By Season 5, Christine's shrink diagnoses her as having a fear of "anything requiring work"; the hard-working mother of Season 1 has been long forgotten.)

Schneider sticks around for Christine Season 4, but Crittenden and Shure, mercifully, depart, and for a while, you think the show might be righting itself. Season 4 kicks off with the show's funniest set of scripts, as newly-arrived writers Sherry Bilsing-Graham and Ellen Kreamer bring back the sense of warmth and believability that vanished during Season 3. (Their "What Happens in Vegas Is Disgusting in Vegas" is another one of those episodes, like the season opener "A Decent Proposal," where every line seems quotable; it's also one where Christine tries to do something nice -- and succeeds -- and where her self-awareness trumps her self-absorption.) The top of Season 4 holds promise that things are getting back on track, and the highlights come often: "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down" and "Self-Esteem Tempura" and "Rage Against the Christine," to name just a few. But "Vegas," midway through the season, marks the end of that string of memorable episodes: most of the rest of Season 4 is a train-wreck. We start with Christine getting her foot caught in the toilet, and the show never recovers. Bad scripts by free-lancers, some clinkers by the regular staff, and a remarkably strained two-part season closer -- Richard and New Christine's wedding: so singularly unconvincing that it's like writers Lizer and Astrof have lost their way.

And Season 5 is pretty much a disaster. The Raymond writers are gone, but -- as the Season 4 finale suggested -- their spirit lives on in the suddenly subpar scripting of Lizer and Astrof. Season 5 starts with Christine flying to the Bahamas to rescue Barb, but there's no rescuing -- it's all about Christine fidgeting on the plane, insulting the flight attendant and losing her passport. (It's like Lizer and Astrof have embraced the image of Christine the dimwit, as pioneered by Crittenden.) She manages nothing, not even a good laugh, and yet Lizer and Astrof wrap it up with her final self-congratulatory line, "Well, Matthew, we did it." And that's what Christine has become: the apotheosis of the clueless. Two episodes later, in perhaps the series' nadir, she spends twenty-two minutes melodramatizing what she thinks is a mole on her breast, but what in fact turns out to be a piece of a brownie; making your lead character suddenly dumb as dirt certainly opens up new storylines, but at what cost? By series' end, Christine's become such an indecisive, obtuse annoyance that even salespeople go out of their way to avoid her.

In the Season 1 finale, after enduring yet another humiliation, Christine cries, "Why do these things keep happening to me? I'm a good mother. I'm a decent person" -- and it's written and delivered without irony. Christine in Season 1 is a good mother; she is a decent person. By Season 5, had she uttered those same lines, the supporting cast would have been cued to roar with laughter at her self-delusion. (By the final season, there's a running gag where Christine has no idea where her son is -- and doesn't really care.) Season 5 does have a few sharp episodes -- "Dr. Little Man" and "It's Beginning to Stink a Lot Like Christmas" and "Truth or Dare" and "Get Smarter" -- and one great thing going for it: Eric McCormack, a marvelous comic match for Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (His reactions are almost as fast as hers; it's a fully believable relationship, in a way that Christine's affair with Blair Underwood's character never was. It takes the writers three seasons to realize that we don't want Christine with someone merely handsome; we want her with someone funny.) But the show remains a relic of its former self, done in by the invasion of the Raymond writers.


Do you enjoy in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; I also pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly. Or if you have a preference for dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits.