Forget Seinfeld and Veep — this is her best role
Still crying over a fictional character’s death from a movie you saw years ago? Having trouble letting go of that one episode of your favorite series? Grieving a gone-too-soon show? We are, too — so with this column, EW staffers pay tribute to something in the pop culture world they’re still not over. This time, David Canfield looks back at The New Adventures of Old Christine.
It hit me harder than expected when Julia Louis-Dreyfus revealed her breast cancer diagnosis last month. The actress has been at the center of my TV viewing for as long as I can remember — from bingeing Seinfeld DVDs with my parents to catching up on her unheralded The New Adventures of Old Christine run to, of course, watching Veep, for which she’s still breaking all kinds of Emmy records and has undeniably reached a pinnacle of acclaim and popularity. Hers was the first Arrested Development episode I watched; it was kismet that she’d end up playing the lead in one of my favorite directors’ best films, the 2013 Nicole Holofcener indie Enough Said. Having three long-running TV roles has certainly helped — we tend to treasure our favorite small-screen characters — but regardless, I’ve always felt intimately connected to her sense of humor and style of performance. I’m sure I’m not alone.
And yet when Louis-Dreyfus broke the news of her diagnosis in that alternately sad and politically inspiring September statement, I didn’t turn to her most lauded performance in Veep or her most famous one in Seinfeld for comfort. I didn’t go back to her old SNL sketches or those four Arrested Development episodes featuring Maggie Lizer. I went back to Old Christine — a criminally underrated mid-2000s sitcom, and still the greatest vehicle for Louis-Dreyfus’ talents to date.
The New Adventures of Old Christine, which premiered on CBS in the same timeframe as The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, began its run as a modest, affecting series about a single mom. The title — really, the artificial hook — was drawn from the pilot’s primary incident: Christine (Louis-Dreyfus) learns that her ex-husband Richard (Clark Gregg), with whom she’s still very friendly, is dating a young, blonde woman named — wait for it — Christine (Emily Rutherfurd). The first season, which ran for 13 episodes, essentially established the series’ dynamics: New Christine was integrated into the family as she and Richard grew closer, Old Christine finally waded into the dating pool while raising young Richie (Trevor Gagnon), and the show’s terrific ensemble — including Hamish Linklater as Old Christine’s live-in brother Matthew and Wanda Sykes as her best friend Barb — gradually emerged. As countless network sitcoms will attest, it can take a while to find your footing, and Old Christine patiently spent much of its first season honing its best attributes. (Louis-Dreyfus won her first Best Comedy Actress Emmy for season 1, and was nominated every season thereafter.)
Chief among them, of course, was Louis-Dreyfus, and from season 2 onward, the show consistently provided her material that ranged from poignant to brilliantly ridiculous. Old Christine was largely comprised of play-like episodes, disregarding subplots for rich 22-minute explorations of a flawed woman in her 40s navigating common challenges while also digging a little deeper. It developed verisimilitude in its distinctiveness. Christine’s highly dysfunctional relationship with Matthew, so co-dependent they couldn’t live without each other, emerged as the series’ highlight, quite unlike anything in broadcast primetime. (One exemplary bottle episode focused on Christine and Matthew trying to make it through the night together without, respectively, falling asleep next to Richie and calling their manipulative mother.) Old Christine also interrogated its eponymous character’s insecurities with a refreshing frankness: She’d go to desperate, if hilarious, measures to prove herself as a good mom, whether to her younger (imagined) rival New Christine, or to the “Meanie Moms” at her son’s private school who mercilessly judged her for her divorce and her job. (She co-ran a women’s gym with Barb.)
The strongest episode of the series, which aired smack in the middle of its five-year run, reflects this perfectly. In season 3’s “House,” Old Christine learns that Richard and New Christine have bought her “dream house” — the house she’d always told Richard she hoped to live in someday — and tries not to let it get to her. (She takes Oprah’s advice of “giving it to the universe”; Richard, for his part, doesn’t remember the house’s significance.) She attempts to conceal her feelings of jealousy as she, Barb, and Matthew visit the comically quaint new home — complete with “night-blooming jasmine” and “a place to hang the chervil” — but she’s left aghast when she sees a photograph of Richie, New Christine, and Richard happily together framed and on-display. “It’s my family,” she yelps. You feel her pain.
What follows, as Christine tries to one-up them by buying Richie a bunk bed (which doesn’t fit in her house), cooking dinners (which are terrible), and taking the TV out of the living room so they can do “family things” (the worst offense, per Barb), is so funny precisely because it’s so deeply felt. She even takes her own “family picture” with Richie, which winds up perfectly imperfect. Louis-Dreyfus plays Christine’s meltdown in the episode with a mix of mean-spiritedness, sadness, and genuinely good intent. Even at her most hysterical — “God, I hate this place!” she screams at one point, fist raised and veins popping, while standing on the couch she crammed into her doorway — it’s disarmingly relatable, a singular showcase of her talent.
Old Christine took the topic of motherhood and middle age seriously, neither drowning in nor ignoring its challenges, while still finding room for idiosyncrasies in its depiction of Christine’s many neuroses. For a CBS sitcom, the show also drove home an impressively progressive agenda. The creator, Kari Lizer, had previously risen to co-executive producer on Will & Grace, and deftly brought that classic’s low-key activist approach to Old Christine. The fourth season, which aired before same-sex marriage was legalized at the federal level, is framed around Christine and Barb, who was born in the Bahamas, getting married to save the latter from being deported. Several episodes skewer anti-gay politics, including one memorably featuring Will & Grace alum Megan Mullally as a closeted conservative, before the arc ends on a sharply political note: The pair learns that because gay marriage is not federally recognized, theirs is rendered legally meaningless and Barb is no less vulnerable to deportation. Over the course of its run, the show also smartly and repeatedly explored topics of healthcare, class, and race.
Despite high initial ratings and continued creative success, Old Christine wasn’t ever fully supported by CBS, constantly shifting timeslots in the pre-streaming era and eventually being hit with an abrupt, surprising cancellation after nearly 100 episodes. (Lizer even bluntly said that sexism played a factor in its treatment.) The show never broke out culturally and is not available to stream anywhere, despite being one of a very small group of shows — now or then — to really dig into the minutiae of a dysfunctional but good-hearted single mom. Louis-Dreyfus’ task was to play the character as grounded yet absurd — appealing yet flawed, sometimes sexy and sometimes maternal, always wine-guzzling — and she was wildly successful. It’s her best performance because it’s her most human character, nonetheless requiring her incomparable comic skill-set. It’s all I wanted to watch when I learned she had breast cancer — and for a few days there, it pretty much was all I watched. Thank goodness for cable reruns.