The NBC summer sitcom "Kristin" won't draw anywhere near as many viewers, or as much media attention, as the high-voltage shows from the last two summers, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor." "Kristin," however, may turn out to be something more important than a buzz show. If prime time ever turns away to any meaningful extent from the breezy amorality that's been its stock-in-trade for the past quarter-century or so, "Kristin" will be seen as a milestone.
The June 4 New Yorker carried a lengthy article by John Lahr on "Kristin." It dealt mostly with the program's driving forces: creator John Markus and star Kristin Chenoweth.
For six years, Markus was head writer for one of the best and most popular series ever, "The Cosby Show." While casting another project a few years ago, he got to know Chenoweth, who's in her early thirties and has worked mostly on Broadway - she won a Tony for "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" - and they, as he put it, "clicked." Chenoweth is, in Lahr's words, "a God-fearing Baptist whose buoyancy is underpinned by the Bible's good news. Both her optimism and her talent are indicative of a more innocent era of entertainment."
Markus started with what he calls a "vague notion" of a show about "a good woman in a world that was immoral," but as he incorporated more and more of Chenoweth's personality into the concept, he emerged with "Kristin." As is the style these days, Chenoweth plays an actress named Kristin, but the character is less successful in her career than Chenoweth is in real life. The fictional Kristin has a day job as an assistant to Tommy, a real-estate tycoon who's approximately as sex-crazed as the typical sitcom character.
Not so Chenoweth's character. Markus says that she will live "by the following rules: she will not lie, she will not cheat, she will not break the law, she believes that marriage is a sacred vow, and she lives the way God asks her to live. In the obstacles to that goodness lies the humor."
Some will disapprove of virtually any treatment of sexual themes on broadcast television. But "Kristin" isn't, and presumably was never intended to be, a family show. Moreover, the racy jokes are justified in the sense that they - more precisely, the sexually liberal mindset from which they spring - can easily be understood as one of the obstacles to goodness that Markus was talking about.
"Kristin" addresses the amoral popular culture on its own turf. It's a gutsy play and a dramatic challenge to the institutional thinking of Hollywood.
The bottom line is that after two episodes, Kristin is the most admirable character on "Kristin." Tommy, predictably, has put the moves on her, and colleagues have condescended to her, both to her face and behind her back ("I hear she does it on the 749th date") yet she's stayed true to herself. In fact, those who tried to take advantage of her or belittle her are starting to respect her, even learn from her.
Sometimes it's been a matter of shattering silly but widely held stereotypes about the religious. For example, in the premiere she makes it clear to Tommy that though she's devout, she's still quite interested in sex, but it's an interest she'll explore only after marriage. Ho-hum, you say. But when was the last time you saw that on TV?
In the second episode, she's lonely and initially attracted to the camaraderie of a few female co-workers. She spends some time with them, but soon tells them she'll never fit in because they're just too bawdy. It's another departure from Hollywood's typical portrayal of a Christian character who "grows" less repressed and, therefore, happier. Kristin is, and remains, comfortable with her faith.
Reviews for "Kristin," unsurprisingly, have been largely negative. One critic said it was "awful," another suggested that it was "dreadful," and a third weighed in with "horrendous." That's OK. In 1994, upon the debut of "Touched By an Angel," one critic described it as "another example of why '90s America is the stupidest place on Earth." "Angel" is heading into its eighth season, still one of the most popular shows on CBS.
In the New Yorker piece, Markus says, "I'm having the same feelings that I had on 'The Cosby Show.' We're taking a character American television viewers don't normally see as accessible and turning her into an Everyperson."
There are millions of people like Kristin Chenoweth in the TV audience. If enough of them watch "Kristin," it'll be around after this summer. Here's hoping.