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Elfman plays against type on ‘Courting Alex’

Actress portrays career-driven lawyer who’s more ‘Greg’ than ‘Dharma’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jenna Elfman says the career-driven lawyer of her new romantic sitcom "Courting Alex" wasn't deliberately created to be the polar opposite of the free-spirited yoga teacher of her previous romantic sitcom, "Dharma & Greg."

"I didn't set forth to make sure I did something different from Dharma, because I don't think the creative process lends itself to trying not to be something," she says.

"Dharma & Greg," a comedy about an odd-couple marriage, ran from 1997-2002 on ABC. Since then, Elfman has starred in three movies and "traveled to some countries I've never been to."

But the 34-year-old actress is back in a TV series because she "realized how much I missed the format of sitcom and acting in front of an audience ... I forgot how much it lights me up and makes me happy."

"Courting Alex," which won its time period when it premiered Jan. 23, airs Mondays at 9:30 p.m. on CBS.

Building the show took time. Characters and situation evolved through several incarnations. Title changes — "Everything I Know About Men" and "The Jenna Elfman Show" — came and went.

"I wanted my character to be strong. I wanted her to be very good at what she does. I wanted her to be dynamic and competent and able, and then to have a tremendous Achilles' heel," Elfman says in explaining the show's protracted development. "I think we are seeing a contemporary woman at the peak of her accomplishment in life in terms of work, and now we are starting to knock on the door of 'What else?' and 'Don't forget you're a girl!'"

Alex is an attorney who works long hours in her father's Manhattan law firm. She's suddenly confronted with the possibility of genuine romance with a much more free-spirited man. It's as if she's now Greg and the guy's Dharma.

At the bustling CBS lot in Studio City, Elfman chats on a sofa on the set of Alex's apartment. The couch is very chic — off-white, decorated with polka-dot mocha and teal cushions, which pick up on the over-all decor of the room. Elfman's involvement in every aspect of the show even extends to color coordination.

"I picked the paint," she says, explaining how she worked closely with the production designer and set decorator. "I wanted to raise the aesthetic value of the sitcom many notches because, 'Why not?' ... I wanted to juxtapose timelessness and modern throughout the entire show in set design, wardrobe, casting ..."

Emmy-winning veteran Dabney Coleman plays Alex's irascible father, Bill. Josh Randall (Dr. Mike Burton on "Ed") is her boyfriend, Scott Larson. Josh Stamberg plays Stephen, the eager legal eagle in Alex's office. Jillian Bach is sassy assistant Molly. Hugh Bonneville is carefree artist chum Julian.

This day, they rehearse an episode where office work has gone on until the wee hours of the morning. Scott shows up, inviting Alex to sleep over for what remains of the night. She's very happy with his kisses, but between yawns complains about his mattress being lumpy.

Randall, well over 6 feet, is suitably built to stand neck and neck with Elfman, even in her high heels. "I'm 5-foot-10," I think," says the glamorously lanky blonde, explaining she's been dancing ballet again, which may have stretched her a bit.

Randall didn't meet Elfman until he auditioned for the show, but has "always been very impressed with her ability to be really funny and natural at the same time."

He's more impressed now. "She played Dharma so convincingly you would think she would have more in common with that character than she does, but she's totally different," says Randall. "She just has a tremendous business sense in addition to creative talent."

Character development continues to evolve on the series. In an earlier incarnation of the show, Bonneville was cast as Alex's boss, a completely different character to Julian. "Though bear in mind I always give the same performance whatever I do," the actor jokes.

Coleman, a seasoned sitcom talent, says the one thing he knows so far about his character is "his affection for his daughter ... other than that, I can't tell you much, but everything kind of springs off that."

Yet he says the comedy is beginning to gel because Elfman "knows what's funny. She knows why it's funny, and she can articulate that. Not many — man or woman — can do that. And she's got great taste."