New York’s USA Network battles Atlanta-based TNT as the country’s most popular basic cable network. Ironically, TNT doesn’t shoot any of its scripted shows here, but rival USA has taken advantage of Georgia tax breaks and brought its latest new series “Necessary Roughness” down to EUE/Screen Gems studios at Lakewood.
The drama, which debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m., stars Callie Thorne as a newly single mom and therapist for problematic football players and other high-profile people. Thorne is best known as the magnetically loud-mouthed Sheila Keefe on FX’s heralded “Rescue Me,” which concludes its seventh and final season this summer.
Her new character Dr. Dani isn’t nearly as volatile as Sheila but is plenty pugnacious, spunky and smart. “My specialties include chicken parmesan, behavioral cognitive therapy, hypnotherapy and kicking my patients’ butts,” Dr. Dani tells the head coach of the fictional New York Hawks. “Beyond that, if you want a money-back guarantee, you should go buy a washing machine.”
Later, when her patient and Terrell Owens-like football player Terrence King (Mehcad Brooks) threatens her, she doesn’t back down: “I don’t scare easily and Terrence, I don’t give up.”
Thorne, in an interview in her trailer earlier this month, said she loves the complexity of her character. “It’s just as hard to play a normal person as a bipolar person,” she said.
The show producers wanted Thorne as the lead early in the process. They even wrote the pilot script with her voice in mind. But Thorne wasn’t immediately available. Testing 12o other actresses for the role didn’t change their minds. Thorne said at first, she actually avoided reading the script because she was tied up and didn’t want to be disappointed. But the other project fell through. The match was made.
“Callie,” Kruger said, “had us at hello.” (That may or may not have been a deliberate reference to “Jerry Maguire,” the classic Tom Cruise/Cuba Gooding Jr. film about an agent and a football player.)
Thorne herself is a self-proclaimed “USA groupie” who said she cried when she found out she got a guest role in 2009 on USA’s “Burn Notice.”
I had breakfast at West Egg Cafe last week with Dr. Donna Dannenfelser, the inspiration behind Dr. Dani and a former therapist for pro athletes, starting with the New York Jets. Dannelfelser moved from Long Island to Los Angeles seven years ago to pitch her life as a TV show. It took far longer than she expected. Writers tried to make it a half-hour sitcom. Another studio worked the concept, then dropped it. She finally found her team with Sony.
“It’s not a documentary,” Dannenfelser said. But she too fell accidentally into dealing with athletes, like Dr. Dani. And their tough-as-nails personalities seem similar. “Even though Callie’s interpreting my character, I can’t help when I watch the show see myself pop out,” she said. ” She plays me better than I play myself!”
Therapists have occasionally shown up on TV (e.g. HBO’s “In Treatment”), but there’s the problem of it just being “people talking in a room,” said Liz Kruger, an executive producer. Fortunately, with Dr. Dani’s practice, she is often forced out of her home office and on the road, thanks to patients ranging from a professional poker player to a NASCAR driver to an Anderson Cooper-type newscaster. “The idea behind cognitive behaviorial therapy,” Kruger said, “is less talk, more action.”
And in the real world, “athletes have embraced therapy. Tiger Woods has even done hypnotherapy,” noted Craig Shapiro, another executive producer and Kruger’s husband.
USA has had an incredible win streak when it comes to breezy hit TV shows, from “White Collar” to “Covert Affairs.” It hasn’t been forced to ax a series for performance issues since 2008’s “The Starter Wife,” which starred Debra Messing and also happened to feature a female entering the single world. (The only reason “Monk” left the air in 2009 was because Tony Shalhoub decided he had enough after eight seasons.)
“Necessary Roughness,” with its sports themes, may have broader appeal than “The Starter Wife.” And it’s properly paired with “Royal Pains,” another medical show set on Long Island. But like a football game, TV programming can be a contact sport. Thorne will be competing with herself starting July 13 when FX brings back “Rescue Me” against ‘Necessary Roughness.”
On TV in recent years, Atlanta has been a stand in for Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit and now Long Island. It’s not quite as easy as it looks, said Kruger. Virginia Highland, so far, has been the best substitute, she said. The football vistas were easier to replicate: Clark Atlanta University’s football field is the Hawks’ practice field while games are played at the Georgia Dome.
USA greenlit the series almost immediately after the pilot was finished late last year. Production for the next 11 episodes began as early as they could realistically do so in April. Set in the fall on Long Island, the show has had to grapple with Atlanta’s sweltering heat. This means plenty of makeup and blotting to hide sweat during outdoor scenes. And an entire department is dedicated to putting foliage out to make it look like autumn.
And the massive studio space at EUE/Screen Gems enabled Sony to build impressive sets of the Hawks locker room and Dr. Dani’s home, which is so convincing that Thorne sometimes forgets she’s in a studio, not a real home.
Thorne, who is temporarily living in Midtown now, said she hopes to carve out some time to check out a show or two at the Fox Theatre and grab a burger at the Vortex. Since she is in almost every scene, she simply hasn’t had the time. “I feel once I master my time better,” she said, “I’m going to get to experience Atlanta a bit more.”
USA, Wednesdays at 10 a.m., starting June 29
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog