They are the three sweetest words in network TV, and Tea Leoni can’t stop saying them.
”Right after Seinfeld! Right after Seinfeld! Right after Seinfeld!”
It’s a mantra that’s been carrying the 30-year-old star of NBC’s mid-season replacement sitcom The Naked Truth through months of frenzied script changes and staff upheavals. And now, 12 hours into a rehearsal for the third episode, Leoni is once again calming herself with thoughts of her new neighbors: Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer on one side, and the good doctors of ER on the other. There’s just one nagging concern: ”Please, Lord,” says Leoni, ”don’t make us the Thursday-night dog-walking show.”
If that happens, it won’t be for lack of grooming. Since last summer, when NBC stole The Naked Truth from ABC, the Peacock net has spent the requisite millions performing its usual voodoo on a favored child. Much like its efforts for Brooke Shields’ Suddenly Susan at the start of the fall season, the network’s hype machine has flooded prime time with high-energy promos flaunting Leoni’s screwball allure. What viewers don’t see are the machinations that go into turning a promising, if flawed, sitcom into one worthy of a Must See slot. ”We had the deluded fantasy that coming from ABC, we weren’t a freshman show anymore,” says Leoni. ”That lasted about 10 minutes — until we realized NBC was changing everything.”
”You need to give a show time to find its legs, and we have a schedule successful enough that we can be patient and nurture it,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield of the continued tinkering. ”Making a course correction on a show like this is one of the joys of toiling in the fields of episodic TV.”
It’s not as if The Naked Truth was a disaster for ABC — it finished a respectable 31st out of 159 shows overall last season. But it never lived up to its star’s potential (Leoni is the Next Lucille Ball, crowed more than one smitten critic), nor could it find a suitable home. ”We liked the show,” insists ABC spokesperson Craig Martinelli. ”There just wasn’t another show to marry it with on our fall schedule.” Last year, Truth was slotted after The Drew Carey Show and Grace Under Fire, programs considered too middle America for such an edgy, urbane comedy. ABC did offer to renew, but the series’ producers chose to go with NBC. ”It’s amazing,” Leoni says, ”to leave one network and feel like the unwanted child and then to come to a new one and feel like the hottest thing. [At ABC] the enthusiasm just wasn’t there. We were standing on our heads and not getting any attention.”
But here’s the funny thing: While edgy and urbane is the supposed definition of Must See programming, critics of the revamped sitcom (and there are many) are lamenting the loss of those very things. While ABC’s sitcom focused on a crass, Weekly World News-type tabloid (the Comet) with a daffy paparazzo (Leoni’s Nora Wilde), NBC’s Nora is a pleasantly giddy advice columnist working for a Comet in search of legitimacy. As costar Holland Taylor puts it, ”The show’s now much more about relationships and office dynamics than about finding people who’ve had sex with Bigfoot.”