Sunday, March 19, 2006

TV Review: Don't call her Elaine

Do not mistake her for Ms. Benis, okay?

She is her own person.

She is talented.

She is capable of so much more.

So don't call her Elaine.

Her name's not Elaine, it's Julia, er, Christine.

We're supposed to all agree to that. We're not sure we can. Last Monday night brought not one but two episodes of CBS' latest sitcom: The New Adventures of Old Christine.

Remember, it's not Elaine Benis. It's is so not Elaine Benis that Christine is nothing like Elaine Benis. They are radically different in every way. In so many ways. For instance . . . . Okay, okay, Elaine Benis . . . didn't wear her hair in cute little pony tails! So there.

Is it really not Elaine?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a very talented comedian (also a very talented straight actress). But she's failed to grasp that somethings are just there when you do comedy. Short of creating an accent for her character or wearing a body suit (with additional limbs), she's using Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the role as much as she did when playing Elaine.

That's not to say that the actress is Christine or Elaine. That is to say that certain quirks are a given. For any actress. Any actress who's smart. Lucille Ball had TV success for years because she didn't decide she needed to prove she was an actress by getting rid of her trademark red hair. Mary Tyler Moore carried the "Ooooh R-o-o-o-b-b" from New Rochelle on over to Minneapolis and turned it into "Mis-ter Gra-a-a-nt." That didn't make either actress less talented. Nor did it make them the characters they played.

CBS aired two episodes of The New Adventures of Old Christine. If you watched only the first one, you might have given up on the show. It wasn't awful, it just wasn't that funny. It was all over the place -- soggy and confusing. Half-way in, about the time Christine went to work, laughs started showing up. But it was awkard to watch. Awkward and painful as we worried that she had another Watching Ellie on her hands -- a whim of sitcom built upon musings.

That's the bad news. Here's the good. The second episode CBS aired (also on Monday night), found a lot less "NEW CHARACTER" and a lot more humor.

Part of the reason for that may be that there was a lot less of Ritchie, Christine's son. The point isn't that Dreyfus can't work with children (she can), it's that his scenes offered nothing. Louis-Dreyfus' comedy (whatever name the character's called) is based on conflict stemming from interaction and action. It was true of her Seinfeld character Elaine, it was true of Maggie Lizer (her character in Arrested Development), it was true of Eileen Swift (her character in Day by Day).

Not recognizing that basis was why Watching Ellie failed. Too often, Louis-Dreyfus was left onscreen delivering monologues to no one. (Think of that show as The Cerebral Monologues.)

CBS made a smart decision in airing two episodes last Monday because the first one alone wasn't much of an invitation for viewers to return as it conveyed every detail, every emotion, every thought through spoken word. And there was a lot of backstory to convey. She's two years divorced from Richard (played by Clark Gregg), she's raising their son Ritchie with some assistance from her live-in brother Matthew (played by Hamish Linklater). The child is switching from a public school to an exclusive, private one. And her ex-husband has just started a relationship with a younger woman who's also named Christine.

Robert Altman could have set all that up, with snatches of dialogue, in a three minute tracking shot but it take the show a full episode to get the points across. Sometimes repeatedly.

Time was wasted with a gag where Christine, aping Michelle Pfeiffer's character in Batman Returns?, phones herself to leave audio messages of things to do. Did we really need to open with the recording of a message and then move immediately to hearing it play back? No.
The gag wasn't that funny to begin with.

The second episode wasn't the-audience-finds-out-about-Christine's-life-as-she-does. It actually had foward motion and, best of all, it had Louis-Dreyfus interacting with many characters. The best of the bunch was guest-star Andy Richter.

With everyone around her having sex, Christine began to wonder if three years without didn't amount to more than a dry spell? So, on the advice of her assistant, she and her brother went to the super market. Linklater demonstrated he could be funny (in that scene and others in the second episode). After striking out in the super market, Christine bumps into Richter outside and they have a one night stand.

Only it's not.

The next day, at her son's school, it's noted that her eyes don't have the "crazy look" and her neck's less tense. Marly and Lindsay, two mothers with too much time on their hands -- played by Tricia O'Kelley and Alex Kapp Horner, quickly guess that Christine's had sex. Christine revels in the moment as she seeks to play herself off as someone much wilder than she is. Marly and Lindsay are shocked that Christine would have a one night stand. Scandalized even. Until Richter approaches and hugs her warmly.

His daughter goes to the same school. And he's been given a nickname at the school -- Sad Dad.
Louis-Dreyfus plays the scene perfectly, from the cocky attitude (full of body movement) when she's trying to prove how out there she can be, to the embarrassment when Richter hugs her, to the mortification when the women realize Christine slept with Sad Dad.

That's a complex bit -- to go through all of those emotions and hit all the rights note for them -- and Louis-Dreyfus pulls it off. From there, she's dealing with her ex, her brother and Richter (who thinks it's love). The second show is an invitation to view a long running series, let's hope viewers hung around for it.

And let's hope that Louis-Dreyfus realizes that somethings can't be helped. Such as the fact that talking about Supertramp while at the fridge was pure Elaine in terms of body movement.
Live with it. Accept that Meryl Streep has never done a sitcom and that sitcoms really aren't the place to show how far you can stretch as a performer. (Stretching usually leads to those "special" episodes of Mad About You that viewers avoid in syndication.)

The writers need to accept that they don't have Bob Newhart on their hands. Like Cher, Newhart's comedic talent derives from a detached stance. Louis-Dreyfus can't pull that off (and shouldn't try to). The only bit with the child that semi-worked in the first episode was when Louis-Dreyfus couldn't stop kissing him in the classroom. Had it been noticed by anyone other than her ex-husband and built upon (Christine getting embarrassed, Christine making a remark), it would have been funny. Newhart can gather many laughs from a long reaction shot where he's stationary but Louis-Dreyfus needs the interaction, her brand of comedy is too kinetic to be immobilized.

That's why she stood out as Elaine at a time when women were largely vanishing from sitcoms as active characters. This show is built around a physical comedian, it shouldn't ignore its strongest asset. Fortunately, the second episode doesn't.

In 1969, Mary Tyler Moore might have thought she'd forever be known to TV viewers as Laura Petrie. The Mary Tyler Moore Show changed that. It didn't do that with MTM rejecting trademarks moves and trademark styles of delivery. Instead, the show was built around Moore's (many) strengths. If everyone involved with The New Adventures of Old Christine will do the same, and stop acting as though Elaine Doesn't Live Here Anymore, CBS just found a way out of the fat/stupid husband & thin wife combo that they've built far too many sitcoms on while Julia Louis-Dreyfus will find herself with a way out of the 'Seinfeld curse.'

[Note that although it seems to have gone unremarked upon, in the second episode Monday night, Louis-Dreyfus wore a pink t-shirt -- the writing on which read: "PEOPLE FOR PEACE."
One of two peace statements on TV last week.]
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }