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Why We Love "Chris" and "Old Christine"

There are some combinations that are just plain great together, like chocolate and peanut butter, and some that don't sound so appetizing on paper but are just satisfying none the less (like, say, lamb and mint jelly). Of the latter, there's Monday night's odd-couple pairing of Everybody Hates Chris and Old Christine. Before I start getting emails from people "reminding" me that they're not exactly paired together on the same network (Chris is on the CW, while Christine lives happily on CBS), I'm talking more about the general neighborhood than them actually being next-door neighbors. And now that both have taken up residence on Monday evenings, the similarities between them become all the more apparent.

Both of these series couldn't be more different in terms of tone or visual style, but both Everybody Hates Chris and Old Christine have become indicative of a new breed of modern family comedies, comprising a direct reaction to all the Friends clones about twenty-something singles living in the city, or workplace comedies like Scrubs, etc. While they're have always been sitcoms that focused on the family (hell, just off the top of my head, Cosby Show, Family Ties, Growing Pains), these feature a more modern definition of the word "family." They're not necessarily white, suburban families with 2.4 kids and a mini-van in the driveway; instead, Chris and Old Christine feature families that wouldn't necessarily have gotten a smart, sassy sitcom a few years back. On Everybody Hates Chris, our leads are an African American family teetering on the edge of poverty in Brooklyn in 1984; over on Old Christine, it's a fractured and extended family of a divorcee, her son, her brother, her ex-husband, and his new girlfriend. But somehow the circumstances each of these families find themselves in don't diminish the love and compassion each of them share for one another... yet neither manages to sacrifice laughter for warm, fuzzy, Very Special Episode moments.

I love coming home from a long day of work on Mondays and plopping myself down at 8 pm to catch the relocated Chris. Everybody Hates Chris is not The Cosby Show by a long stretch, but it does have the same heart and soul as its precursor. On Chris, the kids actually do act like kids, but the entire format has been updated and repackaged as a single-camera comedy capable of showing us the fantasy life inside each of its characters. Chris' family is not your typical sitcom family: dad Julius (Terry Crews) works two jobs to support his family, mom Rochelle (Tichina Arnold) is a ghetto snob who'd just as soon wallop her kids as kiss them, younger brother Drew (Tequan Richmond) is handsome and athletic (and taller than Chris is), and sister Tanya (Imani Hakim) is a spoiled daddy's girl. Chris himself is the only black kid in an all-white school and the victim of constant bullying and racial epithets (those suitable for the watershed 8 pm hour, anyway). Tyler James Williams, who plays Chris, is so confident and natural in the role that you can't help but love this kid and root for him to one day grow up and become, well, Chris Rock. We caught a glimpse of the future Rock in a recent episode in which Chris has to give a speech when he runs for student council and Williams managed to effortless channel the comedian's famous delivery (just don't ask Michael Scott to do the same). While everybody in Bed-Stuy might hate Chris, it's an absolute pleasure to come home to his family every Monday night. Wacky, irreverent, and riotous, Everybody Hates Chris might take place in 1984, but its appeal is completely modern and its sensibilities timeless.

On Old Christine, Christine's family is comprised of diverse elements that don't always gel emotionally, but they are always there for their beloved Ritchie, who in un-traditional sitcom style is still a lovable little moppet but he's completely weird in an adorable way. (Yes, I am thinking about last week's episode when Matthew was forced to bunk with Ritchie and discovered his, um, eccentric nighttime routine.) However, the series has fun with this rather than have it become a predominant focus or obnoxious tangent. Ritchie (Trevor Gagnon) is just who he is and, after all, he is the son of the supremely wacky Christine and Richard and nephew to Matthew (Hamish Linklater), the poster boy for arrested development. The image presented by Old Christine is certainly not perfect or idyllic. This is no smiling, happy Family Ties family, but a challenging, dynamic extended brood. A few years ago, this would have been a provocative, radical idea, but our notions of "family" have changed since the days of the Keatons and Cosbys. According to Old Christine, family is what gathers around you and comforts you, even when that unit is not comprised of a mom and dad married to one another and is instead your mom, your dad, and his new 28-year-old girlfriend... who just happens to share the same name with your mom.

Besides the fact that the series is actually laugh-out-loud funny, something I never thought a traditional multi-camera comedy would be able to make me do for a long time. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Clark Gregg are the single best divorced non-couple on television today and, while I'd watch Louis-Dreyfus read the Anchorage phone book aloud, I love the way she completely inhabits the role of Christine Campbell and turns in a completely uninhibited performance each week.

Plus, I'd much rather watch either of these series than tune in to any of the permutations of what my brother calls "fat guy/hot wife" generic comedies like According to Jim, which are far too traditional in their humor and setups and suddenly exploded onto the scene a few years back. While Chris and Old Christine might not be for everyone (though I can't imagine why), I'm happy to spend my Monday nights with both of their lovable, messed up, kooky families.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Friday Night Lights (NBC); Gilmore Girls (CW); Dancing with the Stars (ABC; 8-9:30 pm); Desire (MyNet)

9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC); Veronica Mars (CW); Help Me Help You (ABC; 9:30-10 pm); Fashion House (MyNet)

10 pm: Criminal Minds (CBS); Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC); Boston Legal (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Gilmore Girls.

On tonight's episode ("The Great Stink"), written by yet another new Gilmore writer Gina Fattore, Emily and Richard are thrilled when Lorelai brings Christopher to Friday night dinner but Chris learns that ex-wife Sherry wants him to send their daughter GiGi to stay with her in Paris. Meanwhile, the episode's title refers to a malodorous problem plaguing Stars Hollow. If it smells like the stench of this once great series rotting, I think you've found it.

9 pm: Veronica Mars.

On tonight's episode ("Charlie Don't Surf"), Logan sits down for dinner with Veronica and Papa Keith and enlists Veronica's help when he realizes that his inheritance is suddenly running low... a mystery which leads them smack into Charlie Stone, played by Gilmore Girls' resident Logan, Matt Czuchry!

10 pm: The Street on BBC America.

On the fourth episode ("Bold Street: Football") of Jimmy McGovern's new drama The Street, a a top football (soccer to the Yanks in the audience) prospect is caught shoplifting a pair of sneakers. If you were looking for light-hearted mirth, look elsewhere.

Comments

Vance said…
both Chris and Christine are hilarious, though I expected it from Chris but I didn't from Christine. Christine is both "traditional" and "heartwarming" yet it isn't boring or sacchrine and still get's out big laughs from me (unlike Jim, Yes Dear or 2 1/2 Men where I sit there like a log not understanding their popularity).
Anonymous said…
I don't need this - my man has TWO jobs!

At least Gina Fattore has a long-standing Dawson's pedigree. David Rosenthal had....spin city.
I'm always surprised by "Old Christine's" ablility to make me laugh out loud. I haven't enjoyed a multi-cam sitcom like that since Seinfeld.

And "Chris" truly does represent the next wave of family comedies. It's well-written and has an exceptionally talented cast. I just wish that more people would tune in.

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