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Second at Bat : THE TEAM THAT SAW ‘BLUE SKIES’ FADE BEGINS ‘A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME’

Jennifer Glimpse is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

If you’re one of the few viewers who actually saw ABC’s short-lived “Blue Skies” this fall, watching “A Whole New Ballgame” may feel a bit like deja vu. While the game is new, the ball team isn’t, and this time out the producers hope to hit a home run.

In this new ABC comedy, Corbin Bernsen, the womanizing Arnie Becker of “L.A. Law,” returns to episodic television as Brett Sooner, a womanizing baseball superstar with the Milwaukee Brewers who is out of work because of the strike. At 40, Sooner knows he’s nearing the end of his career and, with an eye to the future, takes a sportscasting job at a Milwaukee TV station. Though Sooner’s charisma boosts the station’s ratings, his arrogance and roving eye rub at least one colleague the wrong way--namely, his boss and the station’s manager Meg O’Donnell, played by Julia Campbell.

Campbell, as you may (or may not) remember, was the female lead in “Blue Skies.” Fellow “Blue Skies” cast members Richard Kind and Stephen Tobolowsky also will be regulars on “Ballgame.” Kind plays the station’s head of sales and Tobolowsky plays the offbeat weatherman. Kari Coleman and John O’Hurley round out the cast.

The reunion of three “Blue Skies” players isn’t a coincidence. “Ballgame’s” creators and executive producers, John Peaslee and Judd Pillot, also created and produced “Blue Skies.” When they realized they were on a sinking ship, they invited some of the old cast to join them on their life raft.

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The transition has been a quick one. “Blue Skies” aired its last episode Oct. 31 and by early December, production had begun on “A Whole New Ballgame.” But the show’s producers, both five-year veterans of “Coach,” aren’t complaining. The longer, more traditional process of getting a new show on the air is much more frustrating, they say.

“When you go through that development process where you’re all focusing in on one pilot script for a year, everything starts to feel stale and picked over,” says Peaslee. “By the time you’ve addressed the studio’s concerns and the network’s concerns and the actors’ concerns

” ... it gets further and further away from what you had intended,” finishes Pillot. “I think what you see in ‘A Whole New Ballgame’ will be very close to what we intended.”

“It’s just kind of raw,” Peaslee adds.

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The two say they learned some important lessons from their “Blue Skies” experience--lessons they believe will help “Ballgame’s” chances for survival. Understanding the makeup of their audience is first and foremost.

“We don’t usually like to duck behind this, but we were really in a tough time slot,” says Peaslee. The slot: 8:30 Monday night on the East Coast and 10:30 p.m. in the West, following “Coach” and preceding “Monday Night Football” in the East (airing after football in the West). It sounded a like a good slot in theory, they say, but it didn’t work in reality. With “Coach” as a lead-in, they were supposed to ride its coattails. But the two shows did not make for a happy marriage.

“ ‘Blue Skies,’ in our minds, had never been conceived of as a companion to ‘Coach,’ ” says Peaslee.

“They were very different shows,” adds Pillot. “ ‘Blue Skies’ was a more sophisticated, more urban, younger-skewing show than ‘Coach.’ ”.

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Rather than retool “Blue Skies” to make it a better companion to “Coach,” Peaslee and Pillot decided to create a new, more athletic premise and add an element “Blue Skies” lacked: a star.

That star isn’t complaining about the quick turnaround either. “There’s, like, no time to think,” says Bernsen. “Maybe I’m just hoping a lot, but this has the same quality as at the beginning of ‘L.A. Law,’ where all the characters and things seemed to click. I mean, the first week (of “Whole New Ballgame”) was incredible. I guess sometimes when you don’t have time to think you can turn out something pretty interesting.”

Co-star Campbell is equally excited about the new show. Peaslee and Pillot are the “kindest people I’ve ever worked with and they’re really bright men,” Campbell says. “When they said, ‘ “Blue Skies” is in serious trouble and we’re pitching this other idea, and we’d like for you to come over,’ I said, ‘I’m on.’ I didn’t even have to go home and think.”

So, with ABC giving them a second chance, Peaslee, Pillot and their team are at bat once again.

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The writing-producing team is optimistic about their chances for success. “Blue Skies,” says Pillot, “seemed to be behind the eight ball from the day we started. But ‘A Whole New Ballgame’ seems to be on the fast track.”

“A Whole New Ballgame” airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.


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