The view from three TV veterans
For longtime television viewers, little has remained as it once was. But over the last 30 years or so, there have been three comforting constants on the small screen: Christina Applegate, Kelsey Grammer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The familiar faces have been on the air — in one form or another and with varying degrees of success — almost continuously since the 1980s (with Grammer taking the longevity prize for his 22-year run as the voice of Sideshow Bob on “The Simpsons” and his 19-year run playing Dr. Frasier Crane). This season, each is back with a new series — NBC’s “Up All Night” (Applegate), Starz’s “Boss” (Grammer) and HBO’s “Veep” (Louis-Dreyfus) — all of which have already been picked up for a second season.
While viewers have relied on the steadfast on-screen presence of these actors, the trio has been around long enough to see the industry go through some dramatic changes.
Applegate, for instance, points out that the kind of content that used to get her “Married With Children” writers into trouble in 1987 is passé in today’s prime time. “It’s like Pollyanna compared to what they’re getting away with these days.”
One pleasant surprise for her has been the increasing numbers of women headlining comedy series, pointing to"New Girl” as a recent example. “Women still don’t get those props in the film world. I hope ‘Bridesmaids’ [ensures] that women are trusted a bit more to not just be the pretty girl,” Applegate says.
Louis-Dreyfus, who was on"Seinfeld"for 180 episodes, says the biggest difference she sees in TV these days is the way decisions are made. “The audiences are diminishing for network television, and that fuels a sort of fear-based decision-making. But at the same time, I feel more relaxed about it — maybe just ‘cause I’m older now.”
And although Grammer concedes that shrinking budgets have made it tougher to make high-quality shows, “in a weird way, nothing’s changed for me.”
“I just like to do stuff that I’m proud of, and if nobody else is interested in that, then I’ll go tell my story somewhere else,” he says.
“Up All Night”
Looking for a new job was the last thing on Applegate’s mind when she was sent the script for “Up All Night.” She had just given birth to her first child and was busy adjusting to her new life.
“It was pilot season, so I was getting a lot of things coming at me at once, but this was the only script that made me laugh,” she recalls.
Although some of the characters’ relationships and jobs changed significantly during the development process, she says the dry wit of creator Emily Spivey was always the core of the show. And playing a character whose life so closely resembles her own made the role extremely comfortable for the new mother.
“I’ve never played someone that close to who I am and that close to my own personality and my own sense of humor. Her neuroses are my neuroses,” Applegate says.
In the freshman series, the actress who launched her career as Kelly Bundy on “Married With Children” plays TV producer Reagan Brinkley, who balances motherhood with her hectic job while her stay-at-home husband, played by Will Arnett, cares for their baby. Though it’s easy to assume that most of the humor comes from the foibles of parenthood, Applegate is quick to point out that once people tune in they’ll realize that the baby is not the focal point.
“It really is about relationships and just trying to make life work,” says Applegate, who’s also a producer on the series. “I hope that we get deeper into the struggles of life [next season], because that’s really funny.”
The ruthless, calculating Chicago mayor Grammer plays on “Boss” couldn’t be further from the mellifluous psychologist he made famous on"Cheers"and “Frasier” — and that’s exactly the way the actor wants it.
“You get a recognizable persona in TV, and it’s very hard to move out of it,” Grammer says of playing the same character for two decades. “It seemed like the right time to step away from comedy and return to TV in a different way.”
Though Grammer says he’s always wanted to get back to the Shakespearean roots he planted in college, finding the right drama at the right time proved difficult until he and series creator Farhad Safinia started exploring the idea of a hardbitten, morally challenged politician who is diagnosed with a degenerative illness.
“I saw great potential for growth in Mayor Kane’s predicament and certainly had a kind of guilty pleasure in realizing how mean and nasty he was,” says Grammer, who won a Golden Globe for the role in January. “Taking a ride with a villain is something we enjoy.”
Before the series’ October premiere, Starz showed its enthusiasm for “Boss” by giving it a 10-episode order for a second season, which is currently filming in Chicago. Though the ratings have dropped since its premiere, Grammer says being on a cable network has been a refreshing change.
“It’s a luxury to try something new on a network that’s looking for its own brand. It’s a great symbiotic pairing,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “Would we like bigger numbers? I think that’s certainly within the realm of reasonable expectations.”
When Louis-Dreyfus started researching her role as the vice president of the United States on “Veep,” a scheduler in Washington told the actress that she slept with her BlackBerry on her pillow.
“She was very proud of that level of devotion,” Louis-Dreyfus recalls. “It really speaks to the intensity of the political universe and the almost insular nature of it.”
Finding the humor in the intensity of politics, plus the opportunity to work with “In the Loop” creator Armando Iannucci, combined for the perfect opportunity for Louis-Dreyfus to get back into TV. But, first and foremost, she wanted her portrayal of Selina Meyer to be nonpartisan.
“I was interested in political behavior in both parties across the board,” she says, adding that she was careful to avoid Sarah Palin parallels. “I didn’t want this to be a parody of any one particular candidate.”
Running on HBO allows for some of that humor to be more bawdy than the “Seinfeld” actress could ever get away with on a broadcast network. But she said the real pleasure in working in cable was the protracted preproduction process.
“Before we shot a single frame, we rehearsed for six weeks, and HBO got behind that. It’s an expensive enterprise, but they understood the value of it from an artistic point of view,” says Louis-Dreyfus, who’s also a producer on the show.
Not only did having the extra time allow the"Saturday Night Live"alumna to really inhabit the veep, but it also gave way to better scripts. “It was a lovely cocktail of scripted and improvisation all at once. Sometimes a script was born out of improvisation, then you’d improvise on top of that. Many layers of time and energy went into it.”
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