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: the lead character seems so competent. If you watch the whole series, and watch Christine Campbell 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.


  1. Amen! I just discovered this series and binge-watched all five seasons. I was perplexed at how Christine's character changed. I watched a competent, busy, struggling single mom turn into a lazy, stupid part-time alcoholic. The lowest point of the show for me is in the last season where her shrink has to teach her how to finish the most simplest tasks. And by the end of the series she's portrayed as an idiot who "doesn't know what to do" if she "had to live without her TV" and can't even get basic grammar right. I was very disappointed in the de-evolvement of her character and your essay about the invasion of the Raymond writers was an "aha" moment. Thank you for your post; it really answered a lot of questions for me.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, and glad I could offer up a few answers! I was aware when Old Christine first aired how much I disliked most of the Raymond writers' work, and how they seemed to misunderstand the title character, but it became triply apparent when the series went into syndication, and I could revisit several episodes a day, or whole seasons in a week -- much as it must have been for you binging it. Obviously I'm not privy to any behind-the-scenes decision-making, but it does seem to me that the dumbing-down of Christine wasn't an intentional "story arc" -- it was just three writers coming in and offering up the kind of situations and jokes they knew best from their time on Raymond -- and ultimately, the other writers getting behind that vision. I still think there are some wonderful episodes even in those final seasons, but it becomes a much more traditional sitcom, anchored by a dimwitted leading lady, whereas the original impulse was more relevant, relatable, and -- in its admission that, even for the most dutiful among us, the pressures of the modern world can be overwhelming -- quite bold.

  2. Fascinating stuff. Never saw the show, but, in a weird coincidence, it reminds me of how Carol Leifer, I'm pretty sure, was forced upon the Almost Perfect showrunners at the start of the second season in the fall of 1996. And then not only did they ditch the male co-star, but they turned Nancy Travis' lead character into more of an Elaine Benes type, as opposed to what she had been before. It was completely off-putting, and between that and losing the co-star, whom I thought she had good chemistry with, I bailed.

    1. So glad you stopped by, J.P.! This was obviously one of the first essays I wrote for this blog, at a time when I wasn’t yet sure if I should be writing for aficionados of the shows I was discussing, or people unfamiliar with them. I’m so glad the essay proved persuasive even to someone like yourself who has never seen the series. 'Old Christine' remains an ingratiating show, and as I note, there are still some great episodes in the final season, but offhand I can’t think of another series where the lead character undergoes such a startling, unfortunate metamorphosis. And because I’m so mindful of writer credits (and tend to write most of these essays from the point of view of the scripting), the fact that so much of it was attributable to this influx of writers from 'Everybody Loves Raymond' during Seasons 2 and 3 fascinated and infuriated me during the show’s original run, and even more so when I rewatched in syndication. It’s starting to think how much pull they must’ve had in the writers’ room, to pretty much upend the creator’s vision for the show.

      By the way, I remember 'Almost Perfect' well, and the wild relationship rewrite in the opening episode of Season 2, so that Nancy Travis‘s character could go off on her own. I confess, I don’t remember as well the change in Travis‘s *character* that you describe, and it makes me curious to revisit the show – if I can find it anywhere!

    2. Tommy, thanks for the reply. It's been a long time since I've seen Almost Perfect, and there were only FOUR aired season 2 episodes, so I could be exaggerating, but I do remember the character as being rewritten a bit along with the break-up. Anyway, I do intend to comment on some of your other posts, including MTM and WKRP. Your blog is very well-thought-out and well-written. Even if I may disagree with a conclusion or two, you certainly have put forth your reasoning quite well.

    3. Thank you for the kind words about my blog, and I look forward to any comments you decide to leave. And please, feel free to disagree whenever you think I’m off the mark. This ‘Old Christine’ essay was from my “early years,” when I managed to keep these essays to a half-dozen paragraphs. Now, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, they seem to stretch on for 20 and 30 paragraphs! I sometimes feel that I hammer home my points so relentlessly that people feel disinclined to disagree with me, for fear I’ll be an unresponsive listener. But I love the give-and-take. So I look forward to hearing all your thoughts.