This season's hottest TV couple, Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood, finally take flight in an airport drama that's been grounded for two years.
I CAN'T TAKE THESE
PLANES!" coexecutive producer-director Joe Russo moans. It's the first day
of shooting on the LAX set at California's Ontario International Airport, and for some reason, Southwest Airlines has managed to time every deafening takeoff to the precise second that Heather Locklear or Blair Underwood is supposed to
deliver a line. But Ontario's departure lineup is just the beginning of this director's problems. Shooting is more than two hours behind schedule, and the lights in this vacant terminal–turned–production set are so scorching the sprinkler
system may go off. Extras—playing cops, firemen, and various bulky, uniformed airport personnel—are wilting in the unbearable inland California heat. Underwood is leaning in a corner holding an orange miniature fan two inches from his face, and, to top it off, Locklear just busted out of her wardrobe:"My big butt popped a button!" she says with a laugh. Maybe it's justfirst-day-of-school jitters, but has LAX
already hit turbulence?
In fact, it's a wonder that this
airport drama ever got off the ground. LAX,
formerly known as HUB, was on TV's
development runway back at a time when far fewer of us were scared of airports.
Way before Locklear and Underwood signed on to play Harley and Roger, LAX's bickering airfield chief and
terminal manager (who have—wink, wink—a history), exec producer and
creator Nick Thiel had an idea for a dramedy about the inner workings of a
major international airport. So he arranged a tour of the actual LAX and got to
see the tower, immigration and customs offices, and the computers that
determine takeoffs and landings. "Everyone was really relaxed and loose
about showing me things," he recalls. That was August 2001.
After a 2002 TV-pilot order that never
took flight—"We couldn't make a deal with Heather for an hour-long
show," Thiel says; "They'll say I made it not work two years ago, but
the truth is I had no idea I was making it not work," Locklear
counters—and a lucky resurrection by new NBC Entertainment president
Kevin Reilly, it's obvious LAX has
changed from Thiel's original vision. Back at Ontario and back on schedule, Harley
(Locklear) and Roger (Underwood) are interrogating a young medical student.
Wondering why he was shoved in a coffin and sent cargo class on a plane bound
for Los Angeles, the student asks, "Do you think terrorists could have done this?"
"This is the climate we're living
in post-9/11," says Underwood. "There is a curiosity and intrigue
about what goes on behind the scenes at the airport." Curiosity and
intrigue, sure. Anxiety, definitely. After several focus groups weighed in, the
network decided to cut much of the comedy and put in more straight drama.
"I underestimated how seriously people still take airports," Thiel
says. "It was pretty uniform that they wanted serious stuff to be
serious." So besides seeing Locklear stride onto the runway to stop
drunken Serbian pilots from taking off, as happened in LAX's first episode, we'll see the rogue airmen carted off in
handcuffs. No more dogs running amok around the terminal, and no more Roger
checking basketball scores while he goes through security. "The audience
is okay with Harley and Roger's rivalry, but they also needed—not wanted,
but needed—to see these people take their jobs seriously," Underwood
Before you have visions of popping
Klonopin while white-knuckling the remote control, keep two words in mind:
Locklear. Underwood. Feeling better yet? "Sexual tension is the heart of
our show," says Russo (Welcome to
Collinwood), who, with his brother Anthony, will exec-produce and direct
the series. "And the chemistry between those two is as electric as any two
stars I've ever seen." So along with those pesky bomb threats may be some
bomb-chicka-bang-bang—at least, if Locklear has her way. "Isn't he
gorgeous? Sometimes I just stare at him," she moons about her new costar.
"I like to make fun of him and say, `I saw your butt in Sex and the City!'" (For those
unfortunate enough to have missed it, Underwood dropped trou as Miranda's building
fling.) Isn't hubby Richie Sambora going to get jealous? "He's over
me," the ridiculously stunning Locklear says, laughing. "We're going
on 10 years already."
Richie may be over her, but plenty of
other people—especially Team LAX—are
relieved to see the television vet back at work. "There are not many stars you can
bet on, because lightning usually doesn't strike twice," says NBC's
Reilly, whose network has had a development deal with this particular rod since
2003. "Heather is one of those very few people that the audience does tend
to follow." Sure, in do-me-on-a-desktop getups. But will they follow her
in long pants and army boots, as Locklear's Harley seems to favor? "Joe
and Anthony are independent filmmakers and they want everything to look real,"
Locklear says. "I said to them, `Well, sometimes my audience doesn't want
me to look real."
That doesn't mean Locklear wants to
reprise her infamous Melrose Place
persona. "Just because a woman
has dyed her hair and is small doesn't mean she can't do the job. Us woman can do a lot of things other
than be bitchy," she says, going all Lifetime for a moment. To avoid the inevitable comparisons,
Locklear's been playing editor, cutting out some of Harley's soapier
dialogue. "We have to be
careful because there can be a line that someone else might be able to say, but
coming from my mouth it will sound campy." While there may not be catfights (though
claws get sharpened when Harley meets Roger's wife), fans of Locklear's past
wardrobes will be relieved to know that—set your TiVos—in episode 3 she
wears a bikini. "I said to
[the Russos], How are you going to make that 'real?'" she laughs. Regarding another upcoming "partial
nudity" episode, Anthony Russo says, "The reasoning is not what you
expect. It'll be a riot."
If the Russo brothers have their way, LAX's 10 p.m. time slot will allow them
to go far more risque than slinky swimwear. "We love to push boundaries,"
says Joe Russo, no stranger to the concept after directing much of Arrested Development's first season with
his brother. "Swearing here
and there and issues of nudity can add a level of realism." But in the age of orange alerts, realism
might not be the wisest thing to strive for. "That's a bridge we hopefully won't
have to cross," Anthony Russo says about the possibility of real-life
terrorist attack. The question
remains, though: What if something were to happen at an airport? Says Reilly, "One of the reasons
we're trying to make the show more credible is so we can credibly deal with
For now, LAX's most pressing problem is overcoming the dominating presence
of its time-slot competitor, CSI: Miami. "Our show is not set in a police
station or an emergency room or an office.
An airport has all of those things," says Anthony Russo. And after the "intentionally big
and very commercial" pilot is completed, Joe Russo says he and his brother
can begin the experimenting. "Some
weeks will be more comedic, some more dramatic. One week will look like an action movie,
another may be the story of one passenger's life, shot with a handheld
camera. Hopefully when you see
three seconds of it, you won't have any idea what show it is." Cue NBC's promo department, curling into
fetal positions underneath their desks.
"I know it's a very risky approach," Anthony Russo
admits. In other words, LAX may have finally landed on the fall
schedule, but fasten your seat belts, this could be a bumpy takeoff. —Jessica Shaw