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Television Review

'Christine' is welcome, 'Captain' is not

Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 4, 2008

"The New Adventures of Old Christine" is just an oldfangled, conventional sitcom. A bunch of comics pretend to be characters as an excuse to run around making jokes and funny faces on a stage. Beneath its contemporary fashions and conversational rhythms, the CBS sitcom is a whole bunch of vaudeville.

And sometimes that's good enough. What I love about "The New Adventures of Old Christine," which returns tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4, is that it doesn't try to be anything other than dated silliness. It is, as we like to say, what it is. While the new CBS sitcom "Welcome to the Captain" strains to be edgy and quirky and cool and young, "Christine" accepts its limitations and plays hard to its strengths - most notably, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Louis-Dreyfus is a bit of a miracle in "Christine," as she makes even the bad sex jokes work. Just as Hugh Laurie lifts "House" above its medical-mystery-of-the-week formula, Louis-Dreyfus manages to give the familiar single-woman-sitcom shtick a fresh spin. After watching her for more than a decade on "Seinfeld," I keep waiting for her stagy eye-rolling to feel used up, and I wait in vain.

It helps that Louis-Dreyfus has made Christine Campbell significantly different from Elaine Benes. Like Elaine, Christine is a complete narcissist - she's so consumed with her own romantic issues tonight, she fails to notice her brother Matthew's med-school crisis. But Christine is a dumb and unfailingly insecure narcissist. Before she can sleep with her son's teacher, a calm Blair Underwood, she must go through endless bouts of self-doubt. And she is very easily bullied by the other mothers at the school. Elaine surely would have had the upper hand on those bleached-blond Heathers.

Louis-Dreyfus has surrounded herself with a great supporting cast on "Christine." Hamish Linklater is masterfully deadpan as her ever-traumatized brother, Clark Gregg is a goof as her ever-present ex, and Wanda Sykes is a pro as her ever-spikey friend, appropriately named Barb. But, still, even when the other characters are having their moments poking fun at Christine, Louis-Dreyfus is making it all work. You want to watch her face and enjoy her embarrassment.

"Welcome to the Captain," which premieres tonight at 8:30 on Channel 4, is about a Hollywood apartment house swarming with kookier-than-thou characters. Josh (Fran Kranz) is the young filmmaker who moves in and has big reactions to all the nutties, who include Raquel Welch as an aging femme fatale (she's that new cliché, a cougar) and Jeffrey Tambor as a former writer for "Three's Company" who likes to be called Uncle Saul. Chris Klein from "American Pie" is also on hand as Josh's slick womanizing friend, trying to be like Neil Patrick Harris's Barney on "How I Met Your Mother." He wants Josh to "start a new chapter in the book of Josh, a chapter called 'Awesomeness.' "

Out of respect for Tambor - who has been integral to the success of two great comedies, "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Arrested Development" - I tried extra hard to see the promise in this ensemble sitcom. But only Al Madrigal, as a doorman named Jesus (pronounced Jee-zus) who doesn't like to work, had any genuinely amusing moments. Madrigal, mugging something like Fred Armisen on "Saturday Night Live," can barely contain his open stares and snide smirks. The rest of the material is labored.

Naturally, the show includes a possible love connection for Josh, our Everyman, with an acupuncturist named Hope (Joanna Garcia). But, just as naturally, there is something getting in their way, undoubtedly resulting in Ross-and-Rachel-like back-and-forths for the entire run of the show. Let's hope "Welcome," as forced as "Christine" is relaxed, runs itself into cancellation sooner rather than later.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

The New Adventures of Old Christine

Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Blair Underwood

On: CBS, Ch. 4

Time: Tonight, 9:30-10

Welcome to the Captain

Starring: Fran Kranz, Chris Klein, Jeffrey Tambor, Raquel Welch, Joanna Garcia

On: CBS, Ch. 4

Time: Tonight, 8:30-9

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