The comedic joie de vivre in "Campus Ladies," a series debuting Sunday on Oxygen, is infectious. It's a buddy comedy with a big-tent, fish-out-of-water premise — two middle-aged friends, one a widow, the other a divorcée, enroll in college (the fictitious University of the Midwest). Rushing a sorority, they arrive pathetically early and ask for a nosh, and think the question "Jude or Johnny?" has something to do with their major. Quizzed about what kind of car her father drives, Barri (Christen Sussin) replies: "My dad's in a wheelchair. So I would say a wheelchair."
She says it with the peppy tone-deafness of an all-American housewife. Sussin and Carrie Aizley, who plays Joan, developed these two gals as members of the Groundlings, the famed L.A. comedy improv troupe on Melrose. Here they get to take them out for a spin in a ribald setup not unlike Rodney Dangerfield in "Back to School" or Will Ferrell (another Groundlings alumnus) in "Old School."
But there's a different kind of joy to be had in "Campus Ladies"; it has to do with the characters' cultural specificity — the comedy of college life as filtered through two credulous homemakers, somewhat desperate housewives who ditch the white picket fence for the quad and the jello shot. The twist isn't all that unusual, I suppose (unless you factor in the unlevel playing field for female comedians), but Aizley and Sussin are so free and easy with these characters, their chemistry and banter so pitch-perfect, that they continually defy expectations.
And so you anticipate their repression to be the joke, and sometimes it is, but "Campus Ladies" is up to something looser than that; the unspoken joke of the show comes not only from these not-so-innocents abroad but from the various reactions they elicit from fellow students.
It's what enables the show to feel liberating, the way Barri and Joan go from chirpy but cautious to still-chirpy and indecorous with seamless ease. The executive producers of "Campus Ladies" are Cheryl Hines, who plays Larry David's wife on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and the makers of Comedy Central's similarly playful and deadpan "Reno 911."
Launched six years ago as a niche network for women, Oxygen, now seen in 56 million cable homes, hasn't done much in the scripted series arena. If "Campus Ladies" is part of an attempt to make some noise being raunchy and impolitic, to trend female using the Spike TV and Comedy Central models, it's not as ham-handed a gambit as it could be. At least not here. In that regard, it's the snooty sorority girls who ultimately have the most accurate assessment of our campus ladies: "You guys are old, but at least you're original."
Rating: TV-14-D,L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)