Saturday, August 14, 2010

Report from the Set: 'Better With You'...

ABC has a brand new sitcom for the Wednesday comedy block. Acting as the new lead in for Modern Family, Better With You features a hotbed of veteran comedy actors within two different generations to play three different couples in three different stages of their relationship. The first episode will air on September 22nd, but last night I had the chance to visit the set during their second episode taping of the season (first one back from the pilot). As is customary with these "Report from the Set" columns, I won't be spoiling major plot points, but I think you will still be able to get a sense of the fun show based upon the fun on set.

Better With You is set in New York but tapes over on the CBS-Radford lot in Studio City. It follows a young and newly engaged (after dating only seven and a half months) couple played by JoAnna Garcia and Jake Lacy, her older sister and her boyfriend of nine years (which they like to point out is "a valid life choice") in a second on-screen couple stint by Jennifer Finnigan and Josh Cooke, and Kurt Fuller and Debra Jo Rupp as their parents, grumpy and married for thirty-five years with very little left to say to each other (but still some love to share). With such old pros at the sitcom game, even though the episode was only the first official one of the season, the taping was bound to run smoothly, right??

Well, there was one major disappointment that can't go unmentioned: due to a previous commitment on a Woody Allen film, Fuller could not be in attendance for this taping. So instead they had a sub (Jeff Austin) run his scenes so that the audience could get a feel for the couple and the continuity. The production would then shoot the scenes when Fuller returned and edit them into the final cut of the episode. Fuller alerted My Life, Made Possible by Pop Culture to the fact that he would not be there back at the ABC TCA party, so it was not a surprise once arriving at the studio. But his presence was still missed!

Each episode of Better With You centers around a very specific theme. The pilot was focused on the definition of relationships, as seen through the eyes of the various couples; this second episode is focused on how each couple communicates. In both episodes thus far, the point is made that since they are all at various stages in their relationships, the way they deal with each other is indicative of the current stage they are in. The show, then, also asks the audience to forgive and overlook certain early behaviors...because the audience's relationship with the show is brand new and should be in the honeymoon stage.

Similarly, the crew and writer relationships are still new, so there were kinks to be worked out on set that shows in their fourth and fifth years have already gotten past. Nothing major; nothing unexpected; but still things that were somewhat time-consuming. For one thing, there was a huge team on the floor. Seriously, maybe because it was a celebratory moment everyone wanted to be on hand; hell, even Peter Roth came out to congratulate director Andy Cadiff! But with so many writers huddling after takes, it was a wonder why they couldn't-- or wouldn't-- rework one troublesome line that kept tripping star Garcia up. And even when she finally got it out, the dialogue about telling her fiance to be places half an hour earlier then she really needed him there-- but didn't want him to know that and factor the time in and end up being even later-- didn't make much sense or cause an uproarious laugh anyway.

But maybe that's just early ambition showing. Better With You certainly seems like an ambitious sitcom: this episode featured many tracking shots, some strategically framed stunt shots, and even some flashback style memory shots. And juggling six major characters who don't run in the same circle of friends or work in the same place can be rough-- especially when considering how wide the door is open for side and supporting characters. So far the twenty-two minute episodes feel stuffed (with goodness, but still) with just these characters.

What's super cute about watching these actors work is the playfulness they already have with each other. Finnigan and Garcia have been friends for a while, and Finnigan and Cooke played a couple once before (and she says she immediately wanted him for this show based on their previous rapport). They spend time in between takes laughing and chatting like old friends, and that comfort level comes across easily. Those who do reality TV claim that after awhile they forget the cameras are even there. That always seemed like complete B.S., but there were definitely moments when Finnigan and Lacy specifically let loose as if there was no one around. Hers involved an expletive when she forgot a line and then mocking her own Canadian-ness on another line; his, on the other hand, involved wandering around in frame while wearing...well...what looked like flesh-covered Spandex (we'll get to that in a minute!).

Rupp definitely knew how to amp up her audience and quite a few times turned and addressed the crowd before takes so they wouldn't get restless. And perhaps not surprisingly, this seasoned pro had some of the best reaction shots and biggest laughs of the episode. Let's hope she and Fuller get used increasingly more in upcoming episodes because they are true gems!

And personally, I have to admit that some of the most fun moments for me on sets like this are watching the flubs and trip-ups that show the actors with their guards down. Even though Better With You was only on it's first real episode of the season (the pilot having been taped months ago), it was cleared these guys rehearsed, though, because but for a couple of stumbles over words and some camera issues (seriously, the guy on camera number two might be a bit too old for his job because people weren't quiiite in frame all the time), there was really only that one expletive from Finnigan that could be considered blooper reel material.

Better With You has drawn early parallels to Rules of Engagement, simply because that CBS sitcom also features couples at different points in their relationships. But in truth it so far seems to want to model itself after How I Met Your Mother, in part in style but also in gags. The flashbacks come to mind regarding style, and in this second episode in particular, they adapt "The Naked Man" as a tool for a character to avoid a fight, instead of simply get a girl to sleep with him.

Now, Fuller had teased that this episode was the "naked episode" when catching up at the TCAs. Admittedly, at the time there was some laughter but not much thought put into it. It was assumed he was kidding, and it was left alone. But as it turned out last night, he was being very literal. For multiple characters.

And along those lines, let's also point out that Lacy is quite the hottie!

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