I’ve always thought of this show as just okay, an amusing distraction if I happened to flip on a rerun. And, you know. Clark Gregg.
So I just saw the pilot for the first time. Structurally, it’s solid. It uses a twist on the familiar First Day of School pilot trope. The jokes are fairly predictable, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gregg, as ex-husband Richard, carry it. Louis-Dreyfus has that dry, earnest sensibility that makes her seem oblivious that everyone’s laughing at her. By contrast, Gregg wears that omnipresent smirk that makes you think he’s in on every joke–including the ones of which he’s the butt. He exudes coolness even in a multi-camera sitcom environment.
The premise is that Christine has just enrolled her third grade son, Richie, in an exclusive private school. But although Richie’s the one in a new school, Christine is the one with the case of first day jitters. The question becomes not “Is this move the right choice for Richie?” but “Is it the right choice for his parents?”
Christine and Richard have divorced their way into becoming best buds, a point that is set up in the opening scene. But at the mid-point, a new wrinkle is introduced in their relationship. Her name is Christine, too (Emily Rutherfurd; did you know she was in Elizabethtown? Great, underrated movie). Hence our heroine becomes “Old Christine.”
The airbrushed moms at the new school dislike Old Christine because she’s — I don’t know, different somehow. The show seems like it’s trying to suggest that divorce is exclusive to “poor” people; poor, in this case, meaning middle class. Apart from being neurotic and a brunette, there’s no obvious reason why Christine is painted as an alien in this foreign land. Actually, she’s every bit as shallow as the other moms. We’re just supposed to accept that she’s in above her designer purse budget.
I was surprised to realize that Barb, Wanda Sykes‘ character does not appear in the pilot. At later points in the series, she proves instrumental in drawing out Christine’s various neuroses and generally being hilarious in her own right.
The show certainly has some weak moments — cheap physical comedy with Christine trying to run in heels, and cliche jokes about sexless marriage. And if laugh tracks are to be believed, the mere mention of Dennys’ Moons Over My Hammy is hysterical. But the strong acting makes it worthwhile. It’s also a strong set-up for interesting conflict, with the Christine vs. Christine motif. That’s actually stronger, for me, than the Prius-driving working mom vs. plastic surgery victims motif. And it ends with a genuinely touching mother-son moment that ties it all together.