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.