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'Old Christine' has fresh appeal in new series

With her new series, "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (8:30 and 9:30 tonight, WIVB-TV), Julia Louis-Dreyfus has the same old problem. It has to compete with the memory of her "Seinfeld" success.

The sitcom about a divorced single mother, Christine Campbell, who gets along smashingly with her easy-going ex-husband, Richard (Clark Gregg), and a new, sweet girlfriend named Christine (Emily Rutherford), isn't totally real or spectacular.

But it has its heart in the right place, skillfully uses Louis-Dreyfus' ability to be appealing awkward and smartly makes her character sympathetic. At times, the pilot is downright adorable.

It may not make you laugh as loudly or as easily as her character does, but at least it isn't as embarrassing as watching Elaine Benes (her "Seinfeld" character) dance.

Louis-Dreyfus isn't going for unique, as she did the last time with NBC's "Watching Ellie." She is going more for likable, which certainly is a stretch from "Seinfeld."

It works most of the time in the first three episodes made available for review, which focus on her character's competitiveness, insecurities and inability to hide them from her ex-husband, Richard. One of the episodes focuses too much on sex to make it a show you'd want to watch with young children, but that hasn't been a big problem for the CBS hit, "Two and a Half Men."

The old Christine Campbell is such a busy lady that she leaves messages on her phone to remind herself what errands she needs to do. She owns a workout gym and lives with her adorable third-grade son, Ritchie (Trevor Gagnon), and her dryly comic brother Matthew (Hamish Linklater). She's been divorced for two years, but Richard is still in her life because of their son and because they get along so well.

"You are a fantastic ex-husband," Christine tells Richard.

If this set-up sounds a little like one of Kramer's schemes on "Seinfeld" be advised that it is loosely based on the real life of creator Kari Lizer. A former actress who played the law clerk on "Matlock," Lizer said in an interview in Los Angeles that she fictionalized one aspect of the pilot. Her ex-husband's new girlfriend was not named Kari.

"That's just my nightmare," she said. "Most of the particulars are made-up, but I do have a very civilized divorce with my ex-husband so that was sort of the genesis of the idea of a good divorce."

She didn't have to do much research. She said from preschool to the third grade that 10 of the 16 families in her kids' class became divorced.

"What sparked the idea for me is that there's an awful lot of people in this boat and I think there's a bit of a disservice being done to divorced people that they are somehow selfish and they're not thinking about their kids," said Lizer. "You can be divorced and still put your kids first."

The pilot, which revolves around Ritchie moving into a new exclusive private school while his father moves on with the new Christine, was written without Louis-Dreyfus in mind. The actress, who has two children, was looking to play a mother and didn't even mind the idea of playing someone that is referred to as "old."

"I actually like [the title]," she said. "I like the self-deprecating quality of the title and the humor of the show. I like the idea of humiliating yourself."

The humiliations over the three episodes come in many funny forms from her ex-husband, her dates and some judgmental parents at her son's school. Christine watches the lovey-dovey antics of her ex with the new, younger Christine, makes a fool of herself looking for a date at a grocery store and picks a loser (played by Andy Richter) to have a one-night stand. Along the way, Christine exhibits some similarities to Elaine Benes.

"I think the difference with this character is that perhaps she's a little more grounded and perhaps she's a little bit more real," said Louis-Dreyfus of Christine. "But she has a pathetic quality that is similar, frankly."

"I think the idea of humiliating circumstances for this character who's trying her very best to be the very best she can by her child and in her life and doesn't really succeed, is relatable because we all feel that way to a certain extent," she said.

She thinks anyone who throws the "Seinfeld" curse out there is close to pathetic.

"I've never really met anyone in the industry or a thinking person really who thought that meant anything," said Louis-Dreyfus. "I mean, it's show business. The reality it's 1,000-1 every time you go out there."

The odds that the appealing "Christine" will succeed are much better than that. The opening episodes are funny enough and the time slot is good enough to give it a 50-50 chance.

Rating: 3 stars out of 4

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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