March 26, 2014 at 6:35 AM ET
Christopher Meloni is in a '90s kind of mood.
His new FOX comedy, “Surviving Jack,” and his upcoming indie film, “Small Time,” are both set in the days of beepers, CDs, and VCRs. In both projects, Meloni plays a father trying to do his best by his children, but the journeys couldn’t differ more.
“I’m going retro with my career,” Meloni joked during an interview with TODAY in Los Angeles. “Maybe there’s a certain yearning to take it back to simpler times, I don’t know. As soon as you walk into a room that doesn’t have a freakin’ computer or a child with their nose buried in their phone or iPad, you’re like, gosh, these oldies. It’s an interesting time and place to be—before cell phones, before all this interconnectedness.”
“Surviving Jack” premieres on March 27 and is based on Justin Halpern’s bestseller, “I Suck at Girls.” Meloni plays Jack Dunlevy, a military vet physician and happily married father of two teens who cuts back on his office hours so that his wife (Rachael Harris) can go to law school. They have a supportive and satisfying relationship, which defies typical sitcom henpecked hapless husband tropes.
At its heart, the show is a refreshing coming-of-age story for both Jack and his teenage son Frankie (Connor Buckley) in that they’re both growing from their mistakes. Jack also has a daughter, Rachel (Claudia Lee), who’s discovering her feminine wiles and driving her dad crazy.
"I’m in charge of parenting now!" says Jack, with Meloni's deadpan delivery, on his wife's first day of school. Jack may not have all the answers, but he doesn't come across as a clueless father either.
“I think of my character a little bit as Archie Bunker without the racism,” Meloni said. “He’s a more educated Archie Bunker. He says what he wants. He doesn’t mess around. He doesn’t kowtow to political correctness. There may be things he doesn’t quite know how to handle, but he’ll figure it out to his satisfaction. He’ll learn a lesson and move on. It’s maturely handled.”
Three years after he left “Law & Order: SVU,” fans of the NBC sex crimes investigations drama still miss Meloni, who played Elliot Stabler, the beloved partner of Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay). Meloni says he’s looking forward to being on television full-time again, especially in a comedy.
“It’s nice to wake up every day and say to yourself, ‘My job is to try and find the funny,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways to attack or confront or go at any comedic moment or beat or scene. ‘SVU’ was a great, great run. People invited us into their homes for a dozen years and it’s tough to start over. I have to start a new relationship with new characters and with viewers.”
Since leaving "SVU," Meloni appeared on HBO's "True Blood" and in five films including "Man of Steel." Written and directed by Joel Surnow ("24" and "La Femme Nikita"), "Small Time" is an autobiographical story that Surnow wrote upon graduating from film school in 1976 and tucked away in a drawer until now. It is based on Surnow's late father who owned a carpet salesman business with his best friend.
In the movie, Meloni's Al Klein owns a used-car lot with longtime friend Ash Martini (Dean Norris of "Breaking Bad"). After Al's son Freddy (Devon Bostick) graduates from high school, he decides to work with his father and move in with him instead of going to college as his mother Barbara (Bridget Moynahan) wants.
"It's a sweet movie, from a different time," Meloni said. "But it has themes that resonate with any generation--families, how they work, fathers and sons, issues of lost opportunities and missed opportunities to connect. It's a small movie that gave us a chance to breathe, and I hope it's refreshing for people who find it."
While living with his son for the first time since his divorce, Al learns a lot about himself and the reasons his marriage failed. Al and Barbara come to terms with the end of their marriage in a touching and unexpected way.
"I thought that was a very poignant part of the movie," Meloni said. "We all have those qualities, things you don't like about yourself. She's not mean or vindictive. It's just who she is. They were two people who matched up very well except for a few certain things and they couldn't bridge this chasm between themselves."
The film strikes a nostalgic and sentimental tone but also has a lot of humor, particularly in scenes at the car lot. Or at Al and Ash's card games with their buddies, who include Kevin Nealon and Gregory Itzin ("24"). Amaury Nolasco ("Prison Break") plays a car lot employee.
"I'm a horrible salesman and I admire a good salesman," Meloni said. "You go in there and you feel like you're a victim of a jujitsu thing. They're experts and they just tied you up and before you know it, you're signing something. I have a couple of friends who are salesmen and they're great. They get people to trust them and they are trustworthy guys. They're not shysters. They influence people."
“Small Time” will open in selected theaters on April 18 and will also be available on demand that day.
Meloni, who was nominated for one Emmy for his work on "SVU," has another distinction, according to his spouse on "Surviving Jack."
"He has the best butt on primetime," Harris whispered in a behind-the-scenes video.
When asked about the honor, Meloni, 52, said, "I've been badgering the Emmy committee to make that a category. Fingers crossed. Breath held."