“Notes From the Underbelly” is the very picture of the modern broadcast comedy.
Eschews laugh track? Check. Shot with a single camera instead of the classic three-camera “I Love Lucy” approach? Check. Offers narration to enhance the storytelling? Check. Willing to forgo a barrage of one-liners for slyer humor? Yep.
It’s a worthy addition to the smart, new-wave comedies that include NBC’s “Scrubs,” “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “My Name Is Earl.”
The ABC entry was positioned to be even more of a maverick — the first broadcast sitcom airing at 10 p.m. EDT in 16 years, since ABC’s brief 1991 pairing of the sitcoms “Anything But Love” with Jamie Lee Curtis and “Good & Evil” with Teri Garr in the 10-11 p.m. hour.
But the TV gods intervened. “Notes From the Underbelly” will debut Thursday with back-to-back episodes at 10 p.m. ET, but moves to 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday on April 18 to follow “According to Jim.”
‘Show has been its own baby’
“Underbelly” creator and executive producer Stacy Traub is just relieved the sitcom about a young couple pondering and then embarking on parenthood is finally getting its shot. Traub, mother of 2-year-old Hazel and with a second child on the way, finds an easy metaphor.
“It feels oddly like the show has been its own baby that we’ve been waiting to be born,” she said. “In the beginning you’re excited about it, then you get to ‘I’m pregnant; whatever,’ then near the end it’s, ‘Get this out of me already!’
“That’s how I feel about the show. Let’s just get it out there. Maybe it will be a little ugly, maybe not everyone will love it, but it’s OK, I love it. And I want the world to see it,” Traub said.
Based on Risa Green’s novel of the same name, the show offers sharp writing and what Traub sees as a fresh take on its subject.
“The female lead is allowed to complain about the fact that pregnancy isn’t that glamorous and you don’t feel glowing every day and you’re not happy when your pants don’t fit and your husband looks at you a little funny when you get out of the shower,” she said in a knowing rush of words.
Fresh faces in starring rolesThe series also boasts an ensemble cast that’s includes fresh TV faces.
“None of them are overused,” Traub said. “I feel you believe the world, believe the show, believe that these characters are these people. If you get an actor who’s bigger than the character, it’s hard to find reality in the show.”
Jennifer Westfeldt, who plays nervously excited mom-to-be Lauren, co-wrote and starred in the indie film “Kissing Jessica Stein,” received a Tony nomination for the Broadway musical “Wonderful Town” and was a regular on the sitcom “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.”
Peter Cambor, who plays nervously excited dad-to-be Andrew, is a true TV novice. Producer Traub, who was having trouble casting the role, discovered Cambor when she went to see a 2006 Los Angeles production of “The Cherry Orchard,” starring Annette Benning.
Westfeldt has the perfect “neurotic but comedic take,” Traub said. Cambor portrays an appealingly devoted but not wimpy husband who, she said, also serves as the narrator to “give the show a strong point of view.”
“Especially when you’re in a relationship, when you’re married, the woman’s not going through it (pregnancy) alone. I think a guy’s take on it can be even funnier,” Traub said.
Costarring are Michael Weaver, Rachael Harris (“Fat Actress,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”), Melanie Paxson and Sunkrish Bala.
The show’s roller-coaster schedule ride, a glimpse into the intricacies of arranging a network lineup, was the result of the success and failure of several other series.
Originally scheduled to begin airing last October, “Notes From the Underbelly” was shelved when “Ugly Betty” generated enough pre-debut buzz to win a move from Friday to Thursday, usurping the “Underbelly” slot.
‘American Idol’ foiled debutMonths passed until ABC found a new home for the comedy, which was to be 9:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday starting this month. But Fox expanded the “American Idol” results show to an hour for several Wednesdays in April, a move that Traub called “devastating.”
“It would just have been too tall an order for any show” to debut against the hit singing contest, said Jeff Bader, head of scheduling at ABC.
The network decided to double up “Underbelly” in the 10-11 p.m. Thursday time slot, following “Grey’s Anatomy.” Then another ABC series stumbled; as Bader put it, “the season premiere of ‘The Great American Dream Vote’ was also the season finale.”
With the Donny Osmond-hosted reality show’s quick failure, 8:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday was open for “Underbelly.”
After the delayed arrival and changes, “I still believe ABC is behind us. ... All I can hope is people come see it, and hopefully get hooked,” Traub said.