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Louis-Dreyfus works her magic on 'Christine'

The New Adventures of Old Christine
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Clark Gregg, Emily Rutherford, Hamish Linklater
On: CBS, Channel 4
Tonight, 8:30-9 and 9:30-10

By all rights, ''The New Adventures of Old Christine" should be yet another plastic, bombastic sitcom. It's about a bitter divorcee who fixates on her ex-husband's pretty young thing. He gets the sweet lovin' and she gets the sour grapes. If you've seen Stockard Channing buzz-saw her way through ''Out of Practice," you probably know just how corrosive this particular cliché can be.

But ''The New Adventures of Old Christine," which premieres tonight with two episodes at 8:30 and 9:30 on Channel 4, works beautifully for one reason: Julia Louis-Dreyfus. With her eye-rolling exasperation, Louis-Dreyfus could make skinning a potato into a symphony of attitude. I think she emerged as the funniest member of the ''Seinfeld" Fab Four, as she turned Elaine's acute pettiness into a fine art. She was a perfect shot with the zingers, and she delivered shrewd physical comedy, dancing like ''a full-body dry heave set to music," as George once put it.

On ''Old Christine," Louis-Dreyfus plays a slightly different character from Elaine. As Christine, whose ex is dating another woman named Christine, she has softer edges and more vulnerability. Her Christine is a nervous bumbler who gets tangled in jackets, and she's a loving mother. She's also the victim of two blond snobs whose kids go to her son's school and who are the ''Heathers" of the PTO. When they spy Christine's ex, Richard (Clark Gregg), mid-kiss in the parking lot, they can't wait to tell Christine. Elaine could have taken out the pair single-handedly; Christine is more insecure.

Endearingly, Christine is the kind of person who leaves herself to-do messages on her own phone machine. And in between reminding herself to buy milk and fix the sprinklers, she uses niceties such as ''Have a good night" and ''Thank you very much." She likes to be civil, which also plays out in her relationship with Richard. Two years after their divorce, they are buddies who talk every day. ''My divorce is better than most people's marriages," she tells her brother, Matthew (Hamish Linklater). That's why the new Christine gets under her skin.

Unlike that of ''Watching Ellie," Louis-Dreyfus's last attempt to maintain a post-''Seinfeld" TV career, the format of ''Old Christine" is conventional. While ''Watching Ellie" was set in real time, without a laugh track, ''Old Christine" is a classic multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track. At this point, amid the likes of ''My Name Is Earl" and ''Scrubs," the loud, old-school sitcoms come off as coarse and lacking in subtlety. But Louis-Dreyfus nonetheless makes this one sail, having mastered the fast-paced punch line environment on ''Seinfeld." From the get-go, she seems remarkably at home here, a pro in her element.

Another plus about ''Old Christine" is the supporting cast. While too many conventional sitcoms feel obligated to include a big dummy or a sexist pig, this one surrounds its heroine with likable characters, particularly Gregg's Richard. Even the new Christine (Emily Rutherford) isn't annoying, or catty, or any of the qualities you might expect the typical Other Woman to have. If the writers can keep avoiding pitfalls, this surprisingly pleasing show just may signify the end of the ''Seinfeld" curse.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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