Too Much Pepper
TV that leaves a bad taste.


Pepper Dennis, an idiotic new one-hour romantic comedy that premieres on the WB tonight after weeks of being heavily advertised on billboards and the sides of buses, seems like an 11-year-old girl’s notion of what happens when you grow up and begin the glamorous whirl of working and dating: You will look like Fashion Model Barbie as you spunkily strive to get ahead in your TV news reporter job, where, even if you knee a handsome co-worker in the groin, he’ll still keep asking you out.

When the handsome co-worker takes off his shirt–and he will, gratuitous male shirtlessness being a new primetime theme this year–he will look like he spends three hours every day working out in a gay gym, even though, this being an office comedy, it’s hard to imagine how the character would find the time.

Also, your sister will be your roommate and office receptionist, and your best friend will be happily employed as your make-up person. How gratifying to see these two reduced to loyal peons/supporting characters in a life starring you!

In next week’s episode, Pepper (played by the mannequin-like Rebecca Romijn) goes undercover to prove that a local men’s club functions as a brothel, and so gets to announce that she’s “a woman of professional integrity” while dressed up as a prostitute. No one laughs, although her camera crew stares at her in goggle-eyed admiration, as one asks the other, “Did you get to touch the cupcakes?”

Wretched as Pepper Dennis is, it serves as a useful guide to various unexamined messages and wish fulfillment fantasies pop culture sends to girls in 2006. You can see how radically these have changed over four decades by checking out the old Sally Field TV comedies Gidget and The Flying Nun, both of which were just released on DVD last month. These strangely delightful shows are just as corny as I remember, as well as even weirder.

Why did Gidget, who had two parents in the novel and movie, have no mother in the TV series? Evidently so she could have her father all to herself, just like all those Shirley Temple heroines, and in one episode they actually even sort of address this. Gidget was cancelled after just a year (not enough surfing, too much quality time with Dad, I’d say.) So 19-year-old Sally Field became The Flying Nun, who because she only weighed 98 pounds was regularly carried aloft by that wing-shaped hat and the winds of Puerto Rico. Mother Superior didn’t like it, but still, Sister Bertrille just kept soaring away, regularly dropping in on Carlos the playboy casino owner and hitting him up for money whenever the convent needed new plumbing or something.

My sister and I found The Flying Nun absolutely riveting when we were small, and now I can see why: its connected themes are anorexia and the power of adolescent ecstasy, which in the show disapproving adults can only partially suppress. You don’t need to be a compulsive dieter to understand the magical notion of impossible skinniness connected to superpowers. The Flying Nun was no more inane than Pepper Dennis and probably only superficially more wholesome, but I think there’s a reason it ran for years and odds are the WB show won’t.

The fantasies continue with the recently divorced heroine of CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine, a new half-hour Monday night sitcom that makes post-divorce dating seem fun. Unlike her new character, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is known for having an unusually long and happy Hollywood marriage. This is great for the actress and her husband, the tepidly amusing comedy writer Brad Hall, but not for anyone who remembers sitting through Watching Ellie. Hall only sold that 2002 Louis-Dreyfus vehicle to NBC because the network wanted to be in business with his Seinfeld star wife.

Basically a self-indulgent vanity production, Watching Ellie was quickly cancelled, and even before it aired signs weren’t good: I still remember how the couple seemed almost in physical pain at the press conference, tortured by the sheer unbearableness of being forced to explain their show to yahoos. So I didn’t have high hopes for Old Christine, so-called because the title character’s ex-husband has recently begun dating a younger woman also named Christine.

At first, I did find the new show pretty irritating, beginning with the “People for Peace” t-shirt Louis-Dreyfus wore in the first episode. And the down-to-earth, lovably nervous persona she affects for Christine–a middle-class gym owner who’s just enrolled her son in a posh private school–never seems believable and no wonder: Julia is the daughter of French billionaire Gerard Louis-Dreyfus, one of the richest men in the world. So even before she began rolling in those Seinfeld bucks, playing someone who worries about how to afford private-school tuition would have been a stretch.

But Old Christine, created by veteran Will & Grace writer Kari Lizer, has smart dialogue that makes good use of Louis-Dreyfus’s talent for playing shallow airheads and somehow making them appealing. She laments that on dates you have to make conversation about “where you parked, why you didn’t vote, how come you don’t eat bread,” and delivers what may be the definitive comment on Brazilian waxes: “I don’t see why these are supposed to be sexy. I did that once–it was like a hair arrow pointing to my C-section.”

It’s a long way to here from Gidget and The Flying Nun, I know, and probably not for the better. But Old Christine shares with those old reality-defying shows a certain charm–and unlike Pepper Dennis, it manages not to also insult the viewer’s intelligence.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.