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Laughing at Reality : ABC breaks new ground with the fact-based comedy 'Arresting Behavior'


There's never been a show quite like "Arresting Behavior," ABC's new series that is a cross between "Cops" and "Growing Pains." The show, which premieres this week, pokes good-natured fun at popular reality-based series and at typical family sitcoms.

Because "Arresting Behavior" breaks new ground, making the series has been a baptism by fire for its creative team and actors.

"It's a continual work in progress," said co-executive producer and writer Larry Levin. "We're still learning how to do it," agreed "Hill Street Blues" star-turned-director Betty Thomas.

"When I started out I said, 'Oh, this is a comedy. I will play it funny,' " said Leo Burmester, who stars as patrolman Bill Ruskin. "But they kept pulling me in and pulling me in. It's not really about one-liners. It's about everyday conversations that people have. The things (people) say are really funny."

Shot much like a documentary, "Arresting Behavior" follows the personal and professional lives of several police officers of a mid-size fictional town, focusing on the veteran Ruskin, who is happily married to a dog groomer and has three rather poorly adjusted children. "Ruskin is sort of an everyman character," Burmester said.

"He's a real proud guy who doesn't know that things are changing around him," Levin said. "His daughter is getting older and probably breaking more rules than he would like. His son is a little maladjusted. He loves his horse and his horse always kicks him. He is a real sweet guy."

Ruskin's partner is the good-natured, slightly dimwitted Donny Walsh (Ron Eldard), who is the latest to follow in his family's tradition of police work. Walsh's older brother Pete (Chris Mulkey) has a violent temper. Divorced, he is not allowed within 500 feet of his children. "He's a character that has never been done on TV before," Levin said. "It will be interesting to see how he plays out. We shot the pilot before the (Rodney King) verdict."

Except for Mulkey, who played Peggy Lipton's brutish ex-con husband on "Twin Peaks," most of the cast is not familiar to TV audiences. "That was intentional that we stay away from recognizable people," Levin said. "There were TV stars who were interested in doing this and we just said it won't work. It will look like a straight parody."

Levin, who was co-producer of "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and supervising producer of the ill-fated "Good Sports," said he didn't set out to make a spoof of reality-based shows. "I was trying to figure out how to do a new family comedy. I just really wanted to explore the family. I wanted to create this fictional town and maybe do my own spin on family values."

He said the pilot doesn't really reflect the tone of the series. "I think the pilot is less successful (than subsequent episodes)," Levin said. "I think I have to take baby steps. What I am going to do in the other episodes is to tell better stories, but in this form? There are two ways to do this show: to do it in documentary style and then make it entertaining, or to make it entertaining and do it in documentary style. I think I will go for the latter."

Thomas, who is helming three episodes including the pilot, said directing "Behavior" is a lot like directing theater. She got her start by directing the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago.

"It's more like doing a play where the scene has to work as a totality," she said. "Everybody has to be at their top performance at the same time. The adult (actors) are theater-trained actors. They are capable of doing this (show). I think you would have trouble if the actors weren't these kind of trained actors."

Another challenge for Thomas is that the series is shot on location. "There is never a set," she said. "There is never any place where you know what it is going to look like. I have to figure out how to block this thing for the camera. I shoot everywhere."

Thomas said she is the only person who could have directed the pilot. "Wait," she said, laughing. " Anybody could have done the pilot, anybody who knows how to direct. But there is no one who has this background I have, which is weird. I am not saying it is the background that you have to have. I am saying that it is quite specific--having 'Hill Street Blues' in my background and Second City and being asked to take a comedy with cops and do a documentary."

Because "Behavior" is done documentary-style and has no laugh track, Levin knows some viewers may not get that it's a comedy.

In fact, Burmester admitted he didn't get it when he first read the script. "My agent kept saying, 'It's good. You have to got to go in (and audition).' I didn't like it."

"We are asking the audience to concentrate," Levin said. "We are asking them to listen because there is a lot of dialogue. There is no typical laugh track or a reaction shot of someone reacting to the joke. (It's) just very, very, subtle stuff. It is a big question as to the reception this will get."

"Arresting Behavior" previews Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. and moves into its regular time slot We d nesday at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.

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