TV Land continues winning sitcom formula in “The Exes”

By Stacey Harrison

Kristen Johnston already has a plan should her new sitcom ever run into ratings trouble.

“There is so much chemistry between myself and Donald Faison that I would imagine right before we’re canceled they’ll have us sleep together. I think that would be our jumping the shark moment,” says the statuesque funny lady, joking around about one of her latest costars.

The truth is, there isn’t much reason to worry that The Exes, which debuts tonight at 10:30, will have trouble finding an audience. It’s the fourth original sitcom launched by TV Land, whose track record for success in this area — with Hot in Cleveland, Retired at 35 and Happily Divorced — is unblemished. The Exes follows the same formula in taking established sitcom stars and giving them often-racy material to work with in a traditional, multi-camera format.

It’s been 10 years since Johnston said goodbye to her signature role as outrageous alien Sally Solomon on 3rd Rock from the Sun, and this is — by choice — her first regular TV gig since.

“I’d been offered a couple of things, but nothing really got me too excited,” she says. “But something about this, the writing is really good [and] also the fact that she is a normal person. She’s not just some whack job. She walks into a room and she’s normal, she’s like, ‘Hi. How are you?’ … I like whack jobs, but it just gets kind of old.”

Johnston plays Holly, a divorce lawyer who “takes care of everybody else’s lives, but not her own.” To wit, she acts as den mother to three sad-sack former clients, men she’s set up to live in an apartment she owns across the hall. Faison (Scrubs) plays Phil, an emotionally distant ladies man; Wayne Knight (Seinfeld) is Haskell, the slovenly loner; and David Alan Basche (The Starter Wife) is Stuart, the fastidious and clingy new guy. Their dynamic plays much like an Odd Couple plus one, with Stuart slowly making inroads in getting his new roommies to open up.

Faison is known for playing gregarious characters, but shooting The Exes initially exposed his shy side, since the actor had never performed in front of a live studio audience. But he’s since found his groove.

“Kristen now calls me a laugh whore,” Faison says. “I wasn’t always a laugh whore. Coming into it, I was a lot shyer in front of the audience and now I try to get them to laugh as much as I possibly can, even if I don’t have a joke. So I have reached laugh-whore status. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but that’s where I’m at right now.”

Where Johnston is at right now is a much better place to handle success. The sudden fame that came with 3rd Rock was overwhelming for the actress, but she’s happy to have an old friend around in Knight, who played her love interest on the outrageous NBC sitcom.

“It’s really amazing to get back to hang out with him again as a friend,” she said. “3rd Rock was such a crazy time for me. I was just trying to keep my head on the ground and stay alive, basically. Overnight fame is a wacky thing. And now I’m just a totally happier, settled, different person and so it’s really wonderful to become friends with him again as sort of a grown-up.”

If there will be any sudden fame from The Exes, it probably will go to Kelly Stables, who steals all her scenes as Holly’s party-girl assistant Eden. Calling the diminutive Stables “a dazzling comedian,” Johnston predicts she’s about to become “a big, fat star. For real. Like, you’re going to die. She’s going to take the world by storm.”

Photo: Courtesy of TV Land