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Spotlight | THE SURE THING

Alley's 'Closet' Has Slot to Cheer For

September 21, 1997|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All eyes are on "Veronica's Closet" as the new TV shows leave the blocks.

The series certainly has the comedy pedigree to go the distance. Its star, Kirstie Alley, spent six seasons on "Cheers" and has won Emmys for both comedic and dramatic roles. Its executive producers--Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane--have credits including HBO's "Dream On" and NBC's "Friends."

But the pressure is on. "Veronica's Closet" is stepping in as the final leg in NBC's powerhouse Thursday-night sitcom relay--right after the top-rated "Seinfeld."

"We're extremely thrilled to have that time slot," said Kauffman, who created the show with Crane. "On the other hand, there's a lot of pressure that goes with that. Now we have to perform. If it doesn't do well, it's entirely our fault. We can't say, 'Hey, we got a lousy time slot.' "

No kidding.

By tucking the show between "Seinfeld" and "ER," NBC is guaranteeing "Veronica" a huge audience. But with that gift comes the expectation that they won't drop more than a few viewers.

"You can't let it get in your way," said Crane. "The goal is: Let's just be as funny as we can."

Alley, 46, stars as Veronica "Ronnie" Chase, a woman whose slick public persona is at odds with her chaotic real life. She is a self-proclaimed romance expert who sells lingerie through Victoria's Secret-style stores and catalogs. As the pilot opens, she's also hawking her book, "The Guide to a Fairy Tale Marriage."

Her husband (Chris McDonald), though, is no prince. Finally fed up with his philandering, Ronnie dumps him and tries to reassemble her life.

(Art will imitate life to a certain extent in the early episodes that focus on Ronnie's divorce. After 13 years of marriage, Alley and husband Parker Stevenson announced that they were splitting up last November.)

The show was created specifically for Alley, who made Crane and Kauffman promise that she wouldn't be playing Rebecca Howe--her character on "Cheers"--all over again. Ronnie does seem to have more luck with business than Rebecca did, but even less luck with love.

"We were in agreement the second we started," Alley told TV writers recently. "We said we wanted sort of an edgy woman who's on the brink of a nervous breakdown. And that was me."

Certainly that's one of the qualities that she was known for on "Cheers." Other similarities between Ronnie and Rebecca--a good dose of physical humor, a certain neurotic vulnerability--stem from Alley's comic style, Crane said.

"You walk a fine line--how much to take advantage of what you know and what America knows they do well, and at the same time wanting it to be fresh," Crane said. "I think a lot of shows go wrong by trying to do something 180 degrees different from what they did before."

"Veronica's Closet" represents Alley's first venture back into series television since "Cheers" ended its run in 1993. While she found commercial success with three "Look Who's Talking" movies, her other films didn't do as well. The upcoming "Deconstructing Harry," in which she plays one of Woody Allen's ex-wives, received positive reviews during the recent Venice Film Festival.

Alley successes lately have come from her dramatic work. In 1994, she won an Emmy for the CBS telefilm "David's Mother," and this year was nominated for her supporting role in the CBS miniseries "The Last Don."

Comedy, drama, big screen, little screen--none of that makes a difference to her as long as the project she's working on is high-quality, Alley said. "I sound sort of shallow when I say this, but I truly mean it: The real thing that is important to me is that I'm having a good time in my life."

Apparently it was "Veronica's" barrel-of-laughs set that lured in Kathy Najimy. She agreed to play "Veronica's Closet" chief executive, Olive, for the pilot only, but had such a good time she stayed. Best known as Sister Mary Patrick in the film "Sister Act," Najimy has also won numerous awards for her comedy shows with Mo Gaffney.

Olive, Najimy said, is the only person in the office "who has any sense at all." In an arena of slinky underwear and anorexic models, Olive is an outspoken feminist--an aspect of her character she asked the writers to beef up. "I think it's a necessity," Najimy said. "Let Olive be the one at least to say, 'She's not fat,' or 'No, she shouldn't stay with a husband who cheats on her.' "

The office staff is filled out by an assistant (Wallace Langham) who protests too much that he's not gay; an underwear-model-turned publicist (Dan Cortese); and a frazzled young marketing manager (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell). Ronnie's tippler father, who is also her chauffeur, is played by Robert Prosky.

The ensemble, with all their different hang-ups, gives the show a lot of directions to go. In some ways, Crane said, it's like "Friends," where there are six people's neuroses to deal with as they each search for some kind of happiness.

The character flaws, however, do lead to some dark humor. Adultery and divorce, for example, are not typical prime-time fodder. Nor is a chauffeur who's sometimes too drunk to drive.

"That's one of the things we liked about it," Crane said. "We're able to have something very real, a little dark and a little painful ... but because [Ronnie] is triumphant in the story, you're able to take the journey with her."

"Veronica's Closet" airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.

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