TV Article

'LAX'

''LAX'' heats up the screen -- Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood take flight in NBC’s airport drama

NBC, 10-11 PM DEBUTS SEPT. 13

I can't take these planes!'' coexecutive producer/director Joe Russo moans. It's the first day of shooting on the LAX set at California's Ontario International Airport and for some reason, Southwest Airlines has managed to time every deafening takeoff to the precise second that Heather Locklear or Blair Underwood is supposed to deliver a line. But Ontario's departure lineup is just the beginning of this director's problems. Shooting is more than two hours behind schedule, and the lights in this vacant terminal-turned-production set are so scorching the sprinkler system may go off. Extras -- playing cops, firemen, and various bulky, uniformed airport personnel -- are wilting in the unbearable inland California heat. Underwood is leaning in a corner holding an orange miniature fan two inches from his face, and, to top it off, Locklear just busted out of her wardrobe: ''My big butt popped a button!'' she says with a laugh. Maybe it's just first-day-of-school jitters, but has LAX already hit turbulence?

In fact, it's a wonder that this airport drama ever got off the ground. LAX, formerly known as HUB, was on TV's development runway back at a time when far fewer of us were scared of airports. Way before Locklear and Underwood signed on to play Harley and Roger, LAX's bickering airfield chief and terminal manager (who have -- wink, wink -- a history), exec producer and creator Nick Thiel had an idea for a dramedy about the inner workings of a major international airport. So he arranged a tour of the actual LAX and got to see the tower, immigration and customs offices, and the computers that determine takeoffs and landings. ''Everyone was really relaxed and loose about showing me things,'' he recalls. That was August 2001.

After a 2002 TV-pilot order that never took flight -- ''We couldn't make a deal with Heather for an hour-long show,'' Thiel says; ''They'll say I made it not work two years ago, but the truth is I had no idea I was making it not work,'' Locklear counters -- and a lucky resurrection by new NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, it's obvious LAX has changed from Thiel's original vision. Back at Ontario and back on schedule, Harley (Locklear) and Roger (Underwood) are interrogating a young medical student. Wondering why he was shoved in a coffin and sent cargo class on a plane bound for Los Angeles, the student asks, ''Do you think terrorists could have done this?''

''This is the climate we're living in post-9/11,'' says Underwood. ''There is a curiosity and intrigue about what goes on behind the scenes at the airport.'' Curiosity and intrigue, sure. Anxiety, definitely. After several focus groups weighed in, the network decided to cut much of the comedy and put in more straight drama. ''I underestimated how seriously people still take airports,'' Thiel says. ''It was pretty uniform that they wanted serious stuff to be serious.'' So besides seeing Locklear stride onto the runway to stop drunken Serbian pilots from taking off, as happened in LAX's first episode, we'll see the rogue airmen carted off in handcuffs. No more dogs running amok around the terminal, and no more Roger checking basketball scores while he goes through security. ''The audience is okay with Harley and Roger's rivalry, but they also needed -- not wanted, but needed -- to see these people take their jobs seriously,'' Underwood says.

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