Thursday, May 7, 2009

Networks Vie for "Christine," But I Honestly Don't Know Why

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Yesterday I read a small item that grabbed my attention: "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (CBS, Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern) will be back for it's fifth season next year, since the show's production company has cut a "back-up" deal that will place the sitcom on ABC if CBS decides not to pick it up. In essence, ABC and CBS are tussling for "Christine." My initial reaction was, "Why?"

From a business point of view, I kind of understand why ABC might be interested, since while "Christine"'s ratings are nothing spectacular (in the 8 million range for new episodes), it routinely kicks ABC's competing sitcom "Scrubs" in the butt (the audience for "Scrubs" is usually between 5 million and 6 million). But from CBS's point of view, "Christine" loses to Fox's "Lie to Me," and has barely edged out a rerun of "Law & Order" on NBC on its last two airings before last night. Also, "Christine" is not on CBS's high-profile night for comedy, Mondays, which features hit "Two and a Half Men" and buzzy entries like "Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother." And "Christine" seems to be antithetical to ABC's "anything different" programming ethos, so I don't see how such a conventional sitcom would be a fit for the network (it's not a throwback like "Surviving Suburbia").

By retaining "Christine" (as the article indicates many industry observers think will happen), CBS would be keeping a modest hit at a potentially high cost (the amount of money it takes to retain a show as it gets older goes up), and if ABC were to dive in, it would get some ratings improvement on "Scrubs," but without any chance of the show becoming a huge hit.

Put another way, it's not like it would be colossally stupid for either network to program the show, but I just don't understand all the fuss over what is an exceptionally ordinary comedy.

I had watched the first two seasons of "Christine," mainly to watch the talented "Seinfeld" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. But the show just wasn't funny enough to me, and when it conflicted with something else to start its third season, I just let the program go. Since "Christine" is on before "Gary Unmarried," which I do watch, I let my TiVo record "Christine" this year, but I didn't bother watching a single episode. That is, until I read the story about the sitcom's dual suitors, which led me to watch last night's installment, to see if I was missing something.

And after 30 minutes of "Christine," I was left with the same thought: I don't get it. Why are these two networks fighting over this program?

For those who haven't seen it, "Christine" is built around a wacky extended family. Christine (Dreyfus) is divorced from Richard (Clark Gregg), who, as the program launched, was dating a younger woman also named Christine (thus, New Christine, played by Emily Rutherfurd, and no, that's not a typo). Since Christine and Richard have a son, Richie (Trevor Gagnon), who they are raising together, they both make an effort to get along, forming a kind of dysfunctional family unit, too close at times, too competitive at others. Christine's laid back brother Matthew (Hamish Linklater) lives with her to help with Richie, while Christine owns a gym with her best friend Barb (Wanda Sykes). Richie goes to an upscale private school, and two snooty blonde mothers (Tricia O'Kelley and Alex Kapp Horner) there look down on Christine, taking any chance to belittle her.

To me, again, the adjective that best describes the show is ordinary. The plots are ordinary (last night, Christine tries to get Matthew into shape, only to find that he loses more weight doing nothing than she does working hard, while Richard reconsiders his engagement to New Christine when Richie says he doesn't want them to get married). The jokes are ordinary (Christine tells Matthew she can be sensitive to his weight gain, then immediately puts her hand on his stomach and says she "felt a kick"). And the characters are ordinary (the blondes' act grew thin three episodes into the first season, Richard is the kid-at-heart Peter Pan all the time, and Christine is always shooting herself in the foot). It just makes for a mildly amusing, but certainly not memorable or interesting, half hour.

To be clear, I don't affirmatively dislike "Christine" in the way that I am actively bothered by "Two and a Half Men," "According to Jim" and "The Bill Engvall Show." There is nothing offensive or blatantly pandering about "Christine." It's just, well, ordinary.

I think the problem at the heart of "Christine" is Christine. She isn't only unlikable, you don't really give a crap about her. Sure, the "Seinfeld" lot were pretty self-absorbed, but the show had an edge (and, not incidentally, laughs) that made spending 30 minutes with them worthwhile. Christine is just annoying. She's insensitive to those around her and completely self-directed. She's not a great mother, sister or ex-wife, and she's not even good at her job (something made clear when she tries to help Matthew lose weight and talks about working his core as his "coral system"). Sykes's Barb is the voice of reason, taking control after Christine messes up, but as I watched last night's show, I couldn't help wondering, Why does Barb hang around Christine? Why does she like her? It just doesn't make sense. I'm not blaming Louis-Dreyfus. She occasionally wrings laughs from hackneyed set-ups by sheer force of will. But Christine is just not a character I want to watch.

(As an aside, if you are a fan of the deadpan, cranky character Sykes has specialized in playing, which I am, then you may find Barb to be the one funny aspect of "Christine," as I do. I also like some of the lines Linklater's Matthew delivers. Linklater is good at not overplaying to get a laugh.)

So an uninteresting main character, who is not given genuinely funny things to do (last night, the done-to-death bit of the out-of-shape shlub, in this case Christine, being knocked over by a thrown medicine ball was employed), does not add up to a great sitcom.

And certainly not one worthy of being fought over by two networks.