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Television Critic

January 15, 2001

PASADENA, Calif.--There is a scene in what will be the first episode of Joan Cusack's new ABC sitcom that justifies it being shot on a soundstage on Chicago's West Side rather than in West Los Angeles.

Her character, a high-strung high schoolteacher named Joan Gallagher, shows up late for a dinner with her curiously stable boyfriend, Jake (Kyle Chandler of "Early Edition"). And, in a mere 13 seconds, she goes from workday drab to date-night glam.

At the table. Hilariously. Like no one else could.

The laughs have nothing to do with Chicago, which might as well be 2,000 miles away, and everything to do with Cusack, who simply wouldn't do a TV series that required her to begin and end each day apart from her husband, her kids and her hometown.

"Those are so important to me," said Cusack, a two-time Oscar nominee and "Saturday Night Live" alum whose still untitled series will make its debut March 27 at 8:30 p.m. on WLS-Channel 7. "They're huge. They're the ability to have a life and work--and that's hard in this business."

For years, networks have wanted Cusack to do a TV series. She would nod her head, sign the holding deals and eventually let them lapse without shooting a single scene. "It was hard to get people to go to Chicago," said Cusack, who would leave town for the occasional film role but not for the possible seven-year commitment of a TV series. "There's so much serendipity to these things."

It was, in fact, a conspiracy of coincidences that brought her to this show and this show to her in Chicago.

Hollywood power player James L. Brooks, whose TV and movie career runs from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Simpsons" to "Terms of Endearment" and "As Good As It Gets," wanted to do a comedy based on the wry essays of Evanston's Gwen Macsai that dealt with how female friends relate to one another and to the men in their lives.

Cusack was available, and Macsai's voice was not so different from her own. Like Macsai, Cusack went to Evanston Township High. Both women were pregnant when they first met last year. They hit it off.

But Cusack's steadfast refusal to move might well have had Brooks speed-dialing Janeane Garofalo's agent if it weren't for executive producer David Richardson, who had a son accepted at DePaul, and director Michael Lembeck, whose own son was at an area college. They were game to establish a base camp in what Hollywood execs consider "flyover country" between the coasts. Suddenly Chicago seemed a destination of destiny.

"I can't get over the fact that people changed their lives and relocated to Chicago," Brooks said. "It makes everything fresh. I think when the network [brass] has to go on a plane instead of a car to come see the show, it sort of changes everything. . . . There's something raw about it.

"The pressure becomes more our pressure, just because you are this band out there in the middle of someplace where nobody has done a show before. But there's something great about that. It's not like the same experience of doing a show here in [Southern California]."

Cusack, like the local crew, seems to be making adjustments over the course of ABC's initial order of 13 episodes. She sometimes seems to project to the studio audience rather than dialing it down for the cameras and our living rooms.

But when she's at the top of her game--"I've never worked with somebody as physically gifted as Joan in comedy. . . . That's where she just rips," Brooks said--it's clear why all this has been worth the trouble.

"I pinch myself," Cusack said. "It is truly my dream come true, being able to do this show. It is something I've wanted to do for so long, and yeah, there's some pressure in it. . . . It's an ensemble show in a lot of ways because it's about relationships and how people are with each other, [but] you're in a lot of scenes."

And if she's going to lie awake worrying about how all of this will play in prime time, it might as well be in her own bed.