Mistress of Her Domain


Let me say it right up front: Julia Louis-Dreyfus has finally slain the Seinfeld curse. She and former co-stars Jason Alexander and Michael Richards have been drifting through the TV-pilot hinterland for almost a decade now, with only the occasionally brilliant cameo appearance (Alexander as himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louis-Dreyfus as an unethical blind lawyer on Arrested Development) to remind us that their original success was not just derived from proximity to Larry David.

But pity the poor little rich girl no more. The New Adventures of Old Christine may or may not be a mid-season hit, but it should be. Louis-Dreyfus takes instant, manic possession of her character, a single L.A. mom named Christine Campbell. She’s neurotic, sharp-tongued, and likable in equal doses—a lot like Seinfeld‘s Elaine Benes—though the thought of Jerry’s pal raising a child (or even touching one) boggles the mind, whereas Christine seems like a devoted mom, albeit one with all of her anxieties and nerve endings on glorious view.

Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The New Adventures feeds on the familiar mortifications and indignities of daily life. Christine’s ex-husband has replaced her with a younger girlfriend who shares the same name (hence Louis-Dreyfus’s character being nicknamed “Old Christine”). She has recently enrolled her son in a snobby private school she can’t afford, where the hydra-headed mombots excel at competitive humiliation. When the stay-at-home mothers find out Christine owns a chain of 30-minute-workout gyms, one of them snipes, “Who would want a 30-minute workout? What would I do with the rest of my day?” Even the most mundane encounters lend themselves to shame. In one funny scene, Christine tries to jiggle the doorknob of a restaurant bathroom twice, only to have the occupant scream nastily, “I’m still in here!” Instead of triggering a Larry David–style plotline steeped in bitterness and resentment, the encounter sends Christine into apologetic overcompensation. “Sorry, I didn’t know if I turned the knob the whole way and I didn’t want to be standing out here waiting for an empty bathroom,” she babbles, oozing embarrassment. “Because I have to tell you, I’ve done that before . . . ”

Of course, the genius innovation of Curb was that it took this kind of confrontation so far past the point of social acceptability, creating a whole new excruciating genre. The New Adventures, on the ever conservative CBS, stays within the conventions of television sitcom. It has a laugh track and often strays into well-worn territory with episodes about, say, blind dates or looking for love in the supermarket. Still, it steers clear of corniness and undercuts the occasional sentimental note with screwball humor or unexpectedly serrated dialogue. “Where are all the black kids?” Christine’s son Richie asks innocently on his first day at the new school. “Shhhh!” she hisses, aghast. “There was one in the brochure. He must be around here somewhere.” Even Richie is not what you’d expect: Sure, he’s cute and precocious, but much sweeter than your typical sitcom smartass. He doesn’t roll his eyes for comic effect when Christine smothers him with kisses at morning drop-off, and he seems to have inadvertently absorbed some of her female tics. Trying to cover for his inability to swim, Richie tells kids at pool parties that he has his period. When Christine gently tries to convince him it’s not a viable excuse, he says sincerely, “But that’s what you always say.”

None of the characters in this ensemble cast seem throwaway, from her earthy ex-husband (Clark Gregg, a character actor you will undoubtedly recognize even though you won’t be able to nail where you’ve seen him) and friend Barb (Wanda Sykes, the perfect, not-too-sarcastic foil) to the loopy slacker who works at one of Christine’s gyms. But it’s Louis-Dreyfus who keeps me riveted. A master of goofball physical comedy, she also has one of the most agile, transparent faces on television. We watch her smiles wither into grimaces as she attempts to maintain composure, bluffing and blundering through everything, never thinking quite fast enough to hide her awkwardness. After finding out that her ex-husband is seeing a younger woman, Christine tries to make him jealous in return, blurting out that she’s dating . . . a lumberjack. But then she almost instantly crumples into confession: “I haven’t even considered dating yet. I’m still wearing my maternity underwear,” she admits, her expression a complex tangle of emotions that is more than just funny. Horrified by the prospect of “the small talk and the nudity” involved in dating, Christine deadpans, “I have to stand on my head to make my boobs look good.”

The New Adventures of Old Christine doesn’t break the mold like Curb Your Enthusiasm (or Seinfeld, back in the day), and it doesn’t define a moment as Roseanne did. It doesn’t even showcase a brand-new Julia Louis-Dreyfus—just a superbly evolved version of the old one who embodies the full range of craziness and complexity in middle-class single momdom.