"It was everybody with their iPads going, 'What's Futon Critic saying about our show?'" exclaimed actress Debra Jo Rupp when asked whether she and the cast of ABC's freshman sitcom "Better With You" worried about the reviews and ratings when the show first premiered this fall. Rupp's on-screen husband Kurt Fuller laughed at the notion that some actors actually say that they don't care about ratings and reviews. "Anybody who tells you they just don't care is lying! It's our life. It's our business. It's how we figure out how we're doing in our business."
During a set visit earlier this month in Los Angeles, our Jim Halterman got an earful from Rupp, Fuller, fellow cast members Jennifer Finnigan, Joanna Garcia, Jake Lacy, Josh Cooke and guest star Reba McEntire about how the show is coming together now that the Shana Goldberg-Meehan-created series has been renewed for a full season, what's exciting for them about learning more about their characters and, of course, how to keep McEntire coming back for more episodes.
In this week's episode entitled "Better With Flirting," McEntire, who played Garcia's mother on the long-running sitcom "Reba," plays Lorraine Ashley, a much-sought after wedding planner who seems like a dream until she decides to steal the dream wedding of Mia (Garcia) and Casey (Lacy). The country music megastar admitted to being more than a bit nervous about jumping back into the sitcom world even if it was just for a guest spot. "I didn't know how my memory chops were going to be even though I'm singing every night with close to 20 songs a night. It's a muscle and you've got to keep that thing in shape. They're great writers and when you have great writers it's so much easier to memorize. I've been having a wonderful time and falling back into it fairly well."
While their wedding plans might be up in the air, soon-to-be-parents Mia and Casey will see the pregnancy play out through the end of this first season though Garcia is a little nervous about how the delivery will be incorporated into the show. One reason for those nerves is because the powers-that-be are keeping her in the dark at this point and maybe enjoying her anxiety. "[Executive Producer] Greg Malins walked up to me and said 'I have an idea for the delivery and the wedding. Talk to you later.' What do you mean!? Am I going to be on a trapeze or something?! I don't know!"
One thing the cast does know is that with each episode, their chemistry is gelling more and more. "For me," said Finnegan, "it had been awhile since I'd done a sitcom - five and a half years - so I was much less sure of myself when we started and I've learned so much by watching my fellow actors. I just love to learn and watch and now my level of confidence is higher. I like to take chances and just be silly and I just think group-wise we've really solidified and we kind of love each other." Cooke agreed with his TV wife (who he worked with on the 2005 sitcom "Committed") and added, "It's finding the pairings and the rhythms within the group. I think the writers have developed so much in watching us, what works and what doesn't work. What we can do and cannot do and very quickly learned to adapt to that. I think of it as everyone just settling into getting comfortable with each other."
Of that ever elusive chemistry with any cast, though, Fuller shared, "it is or it isn't. We could not have chemistry and spend lots and lots of time together and still have no chemistry but we happen to be like a family and I don't think there's anything we can do short of hating each other and that's not going to happen until the third season." Fuller is also very much aware of how it sounds when actors gush over one another and boast about how well everyone gets along and loves each other. "I listen to Howard Stern and whenever anybody is interviewed on Howard Stern and they start saying nice things he says 'Cut it off! I can't hear another actor talk about how wonderful somebody else is!' But it's the truth."
Fuller and Rupp also talked about their respective reasons for gravitating towards their "Better With You" patriarch roles. "We are ancient for TV even though not in life," Fuller said of himself and Rupp but added that their characters "have a romantic life, we have a sexual life, we have a huge history that we carry on. Even though it's a four-camera half-hour show these parts are written with dimension in my opinion and I really, really appreciate that." Rupp saw a chance to break out of the mold of playing the mother Kitty Forman on the hit FOX sitcom "That 70's Show" for eight seasons. After spending the past few years on the East Coast doing theater, Rupp explained, "I came back in February and I auditioned for pilots and this one came by and I went 'Oh my god! It's a character who has nice clothes and lives in the 2000s and is so self-involved, which was so different from Kitty. All Vicky cares about is herself! So this is the one I jumped into."
One thing that the actors are excited about in coming episodes is delving into the pasts of their characters. "We come in Monday and do a table read," Lacy said, "and then Sunday evening we're sent a script so you're sort of waiting all weekend on what the next installment is and then you read it and it's like 'Oh! That's how we wound up here!' Or they learn this about each other and it sets this off and it comes together so it's a learning process for us as well. There's a bunch of stuff hidden and we're just waiting."
If her last job on "Reba" was any indication, Garcia predicted the way in which the writers will come up with stories and situations as "Better With You" goes on. "I always say the beginning of a show is the writers and all their stories. So, for instance, naked fighting. When we got that episode [on this show] we were like 'Which one of you fights naked?' Then, as time goes on, which happened on 'Reba' a lot towards the end, any skeleton in your closet will be revealed and exploited. For instance, I had to sing karaoke, which is horrifying but it was like, 'Ok, it's what I do terribly so we should focus on that!' Keep the cards close with these guys because they're good and they pick up on everything! I learned the hard way with that!"
With Reba's guest turn on tonight's episode deemed a success by the cast, what are the chances Lorraine the evil wedding planner might return? Garcia suggested a scenario where Mia ends up working for Lorraine while McEntire offered up her own take, "I piss off somebody so bad I get fired from my job and I become your nanny!" From the laughs and cheers from Lacy and Garcia, hopefully the writers were listening.
Back to the ever-present concern over ratings, Cooke said that he tried to warn newcomer Lacy about getting too numbers-obsessed. Cooke explained that Lacy is "in the exact same position on this show that I was in the first show that [Jennifer and I] did together which is pretty much right out of college, first major job and I said 'Don't read any reviews, don't look at ratings' and he didn't listen to me!"
Guest star Reba McEntire appears on tonight's "Better With You" episode, which airs at 8:30/7:30c on ABC.