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‘Old Christine’ is zanily Elaineish

Julia Louis-Dreyfus ' new sitcom is a happy blast of fresh, cool air.Bill Inoshita / CBS
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Which compliment would please a comic actress more — that her contagious and infectious humor seems to come naturally to her, as if part of her DNA, or that it is obviously something she has perfected through long and arduous hours of work? Actually, “contagious and infectious” may be the offensive part, since it sounds like a disease.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is not diseased, of course, but she is cheeringly and benignly demented, as she proved in nine joyous seasons of “Seinfeld” on NBC and as she reaffirms tonight with her smart, sassy and delightful sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” a happy blast of fresh, cool air that’s just what we need on these warm winter nights.

Merely premiering the series at its regular time slot of 9:30 would be too logical for CBS, however, and might fail to confuse viewers. So—according to a network press release and the CBS Web site—the series will get a kind of double premiere that was devised too late for the deadlines of weekly TV magazines: The pilot is followed by a half-hour break for “Two and a Half Men” and then a second episode of “Christine.”

That perplexing ploy is as daffy as the show. The bright side is, if you like “Christine,” you get two fresh episodes, and there’s another bright side: Louis-Dreyfus herself. Although a previous attempt at following up her “Seinfeld” success failed, this new vehicle takes better advantage of her rough-and-tumble charm. She’s cast as a young single mother, divorced two years and the successful owner of a women’s health club—someone hardly footloose and fancy-free but, despite the responsibilities, still too young for the post-prime-time ennui of middle age.

Louis-Dreyfus looks a bit older, mainly because her makeup has been radically toned down, but she is no less adorable. And though Christine Campbell, the character she plays, is fairly affluent, viewers should have no trouble identifying with her anxieties and insecurities, two closely related states of mind that Louis-Dreyfus has a unique talent for making hilarious.

As the pilot begins, she’s phoning her own answering machine to leave self-scolding reminder messages (“Stop eating sugar!”) and, more to the point, nervously preparing her 8-year-old son, Richie (Trevor Gagnon), for his first day in third grade, which also marks his transfer from an urban public school to a tony private one. When they walk into the classroom, Richie surveys the situation, looks up at his mom and asks pointedly, “Where are the black kids?” Defensively she tells him she’s sure she saw one in the brochure.

He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK
A kind of two-woman Greek chorus that also resembles a scaled-down coven of witches from “Macbeth,” Tricia O’Kelley and Alex Kapp Horner hover about as a pair of very knowing moms who love to stir up trouble during those brief lapses in life when none manages to present itself. They’re the ones who take it upon themselves to tell Christine that her ex-husband is making out with his new girlfriend, right out there in the school parking lot.

In a bit of comic business that does recall Elaine of “Seinfeld,” the embittered Christine tells her husband that she, too, has a boyfriend and a rich romantic life. He’s — a lumberjack, yeah, that’s it. Joe, the lumberjack. And he’s, uh, very rich and virile and so on (“When a lumberjack loves you, he loves you”). Midway through such wishful fantasies, it’s obvious that Louis-Dreyfus is making up a lie and wading deeper and deeper into it. Her husband (agreeably played by Clark Gregg) recognizes the telltale signs mere moments into the tale’s telling.

Until she meets the new girlfriend — also, painfully enough, named Christine —t he old Christine had considered hers an ideal divorce, “better than most people’s marriages.” But then comes the monkey wrench. How much of the series’s comedy relies on this situation will depend, obviously, on how adroitly the writers can stretch it out, but there are plenty of other possibilities in Christine’s life — her struggles to raise a child and run a business, her efforts to keep from looking ridiculous, her likably deadbeat live-in brother (Hamish Linklater) and the battle to be waged against the forces of time and gravity (“I have to stand on my head to make my boobs look good”).

Louis-Dreyfus has a priceless moment in the second episode, with a mustachioed Andy Richter guest-starring as a (potentially) one-night stand that Christine picks up at the supermarket. Attempting earlier to seduce another shopper, she nervously babbles out her entire autobiography, then stumbles awkwardly into a would-be come-hither wiggle that looks more spasmodic than erotic. It’s a combination of physical and verbal humor that evokes memories of—and one can never say this lightly — the immortal Lucy herself.

To make things better still, the very tart and very smart Wanda Sykes will guest-star in the third episode, which airs of course in the show’s second week. My, but those scamps at CBS like to tempt fate — rescheduling a new show’s air times at the very last minute. But ensconced in the fairly solid CBS Monday night comedy block at whatever hour, “The New Adventures of Old Christine” (executive-produced by Kari Lizer) seems entirely at home and capable of keeping viewers cheerful. And keeping them entirely at home, for that matter.

Louis-Dreyfus deserves her own big hit, and if prime-time television were a true meritocracy, which it isn’t, “Christine” would be it. Whatever happens, Louis-Dreyfus is wackily back in the funniest of fettles, the pleasure of her company as deliriously dependable as ever.