It's NOT the easiest assignment, to project earnest indignation in a bright fuchsia teddy, but Molly Shannon, the Kath to Selma Blair's Kim in NBC's new comedy "Kath & Kim," is working it. Gesturing emphatically with impeccably rendered French tips, she sends giant gold hoops swaying righteously from her earlobes, squinting with sincerity as she loses patience with her twentysomething TV daughter.
"Kim has been running amok for three episodes," said Michelle Nader, executive producer of the comedy. "I wanted to give her a real moment, to explain why she is the way she is. . . . We won't do it again."
With "Kath & Kim" (which premieres Oct. 9), the network takes a stab at one of Australia's most successful television programs, hoping for the same kind of success enjoyed by such foreign-born American hits as "Ugly Betty," from Colombia; and "The Office," from Britain. (Reveille serves as the U.S. production company for all three shows.)
Bringing "Kath & Kim" stateside first meant transposing the characters to Florida -- apparently, the center of all nuttiness in America. Then the producers went to work on paraphrasing the show's sensibility.
"It's cuckoo, crazy funny, but it's not like the Australian version," Nader says. "They didn't go for anything emotional."
As is typical of many Australian shows, the original series ran for only eight episodes in each of its four seasons. Concerned her forebears opted for a sketch comedy approach that might wear thin over the course of 22 installments, Nader deepened the mother-daughter drama and chose to steer clear of the snark.
"I don't like that stance that 'we're smarter than them,' " said Nader, who also worked on "The King of Queens" and "Dharma & Greg." "The comedy I like most has pathos."
Hence the big moment: Kim, poor lass, has searched the whole mall over, but somehow still lacks a direction in life. Nope, not even selling lingerie to housewives will fill the void. In Kim's own trenchant analysis, "It's too much work."
It's Valley hot on set on this August day in West Hills, sweltering enough to melt the Pam Anderson-style barbed wire tattoo right off Blair's left biceps. With a personal creed cut-and-pasted directly from celebrity rags, her Kim possesses almost Hilton-like powers of self-absorption. But this caricature, she hopes, is not entirely devoid of a soul.
"It's a sophisticated show about common people," Blair said. "She's like a lot of girls you see at the mall. I have a soft spot for her."
The Australian media, however, have been following the story with a less tender-hearted attitude. Their Defamer sniped that its chances of flopping were "a scientific inevitability." The Sydney Morning Herald also aired concerns.
Reveille and NBC have had "Kath & Kim" in development for a couple of years, requiring some eight months just to cast it. Nader was hired to overhaul another writer's work.
"This came around a few years before, and initially I passed on it," Shannon said. But Nader wrote her version with the "Saturday Night Live" alum in mind, and the actress says she "loves" the result. The show certainly appears to play to her strengths.
Nader has skewed the comedy toward exaggerated set pieces, such as a hip-hop dance Kath and her boyfriend perform in a gay club, a big hair show for salon owner Kath to showcase her skills and the full-on Sharon Stone-style romp she whipped out for this episode.
"Kath & Kim" is, after all, very much a female-driven comedy, albeit solidly supported. The women are joined by comedy veteran John Michael Higgins and newcomer Mikey Day, who portray Kath's suave-in-a-polyester-sort-of-way boyfriend Phil, and Kim's theatrically obtuse, on-again off-again husband, respectively. Their talents are earning them more airtime, executives say, just another example of how the show is hitting its stride, true to its own voice.
"I don't want to write a show I wouldn't want to watch," Nader says. "That's just lame."