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New crop of TV characters steal stars’ thunder

By JEREMY EGNER THE NEW YORK TIMES

This article was published December 6, 2012 at 3:45 a.m.

— Starting a series is hard. Just ask the producers of Made in Jersey. So it helps to have an indelible character to keep viewers entertained long enough to get them invested in stories they don’t know and actors they’ve often never seen.

The most memorable scene stealers in this fall’s new series largely carry on the tradition of Kramer (Seinfeld), Carla (Cheers) or, more currently, Schmidt (New Girl), Ron Swanson (Parks and Recreation) and Roger Sterling (Mad Men) — firing off the best lines from the side while the leads carry the story forward. The screen time may be limited, but it comes with the “freedom to just go in and do my job as an actor,” says Sara Rue, who appears on the new Malibu Country and knows what it’s like to be the lead from her time on the mid-’00s sitcom Less Than Perfect.

This time around, “I get to just show up, wear my fake nails, flounce around and say my funny lines and go home,” she says. “It’s kind of great.”

BRETT GELMAN

Go On (NBC)

Role: Mr. K, one of the group-therapy patients who charm and torment Matthew Perry’s Ryan King.

Defining quality: Slackjawed oddness.

Specialties: Non sequiturs; dead-eyed stares; beard fondling.

You might have seen him: As Chris Elliott’s sidekick in Eagleheart or one of the unsettling Little Bit of Luck characters in New York Lottery ads.

Go On has dizzying quirks per capita even without Mr. K, a man Gelman describes as “a positive Hannibal Lecter.” But the character’s peculiarity stands out even from the other goofballs. The Lecter comparison stems from Mr. K’s intense observation of his surroundings, Gelman says, as he hovers — watching, always watching — on the fringe of group activities. When Mr. K does act out, he’s equally likely to share a convincing Gene Kelly impersonation, a savantlike understanding of real estate law or an enthusiasm for streaking.

LUCY PUNCH

Ben and Kate (Fox) Role: BJ, a co-worker and sidekick to the titular Kate. Defining quality: A Gervaisian mix of cluelessness and self-regard. Specialties: Brassy quips; bad decisions. You might have seen her: Cuckolding Anthony Hopkins in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, antagonizing Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, licking Steve Carell in Dinner for Schmucks.

In this sitcom about mismatched but loving siblings sharing a roof, BJ is a saucy conniver who keeps the show’s sweetness in check. “She’s coming from somewhere darker and corrupt,” says Punch.

Early episodes found her helping Ben steal a tree from an ex-girlfriend’s backyard and faking her death to get out of a relationship. Punch finds laughs in the gap between reality and her character’s oblivious ego.

Punch, who grew up in London but now lives in Los Angeles, didn’t set out to become a comic actress. But it’s a niche she embraces, at times unintentionally. Early dramatic auditions found her striving for wrenching emotion but inspiring something else.

“I thought I was giving some really intense, moving performance, and instead I moved everyone to tears of laughter,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s natural humor or my atrocious acting.”

SARA RUE

Malibu Country (ABC)

Role: Kim, nosy neighbor to a fish-out-of-water Tennessee family headed by Reba (Reba McEntire) and her mother, Lillie Mae (Lily Tomlin).

Defining quality: California shallow.

Specialty: Personal space violations.

You might have seen her: In Less Than Perfect or in recurring roles on Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and Rules of Engagement.

Actorly insecurity almost prevented Rue from joining Malibu Country. She rejected early overtures from the producers because “I just felt like they weren’t going to give me the job,” Rue says, laughing. “I wrote myself off.”

Her reluctance was because Kim, an oversharing socialite with verve, runs counter to Rue’s typical “uncomfortable-in-my-own-skin awkward girl” roles. But she found a secret weapon in her cable box. “I’ve watched a lot of Real Housewives of Orange County and Beverly Hills,” she says. “Both of those shows really inform the character.”

After starring in Less Than Perfect, which ran from 2002 to 2006, she is happy to cede “the pressure of carrying the show” to McEntire. “She has such a huge fan base and such a huge following,” Rue says. “It’s kind of a relief to just be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you handle this part.’”

JD SOUTHER

Nashville (ABC) Role: Watty White, a country music guru. Defining quality: Grizzled wisdom. Specialty: Sage, plot-goosing ideas. You might have seen him: Acting in Thirtysomething, performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center, partying with The Eagles at the Troubadour in the ’70s. A Nashville, Tenn., Yoda who, as one character notes, has “discovered half the people in this town,” White links the subplots and frames the big-picture narrative about a town full of flawed strivers (like Connie Britton’s Rayna Jaymes). “He kind of shows up occasionally and provides perspective and some clarity,” says Souther.

Souther’s easy authenticity as a seen-it-all music business Zelig probably springs from his having seen plenty himself. A fixture in the Los Angeles country-rock scene in the 1970s, he was a writer of several of The Eagles’ hits (“Heartache Tonight,” “New Kid in Town”) and performed with (and dated) Linda Ronstadt. Other hits followed, but he dropped out of the recording business in the mid-’80s, after the rise of MTV. “People I knew were thinking about the videos while they were writing the songs, and it didn’t appeal to me,” he says.

Souther, who moved to Nashville a decade ago, continued writing songs for Bonnie Raitt and the Dixie Chicks, among others; when he started putting out records again in 2008, they were jazzier affairs (including Midnight in Tokyo, released last month).

Weekend, Pages 32 on 12/06/2012

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