He may act like a tough dad and sound like a tough dad, but Surviving Jack star Christopher Meloni wants to make it very clear: his character's bark is far worse than his bite.
"Jack is never mean. He's not a mean-spirited guy," Meloni tells TVGuide.com of his new TV alter ego, husband and strict father of two Jack Dunlevy. "Everyone's antenna is always up for anything that maybe smacks of him being mean."
Series co-creator and executive producer Justin Halpern seconds this sentiment: "He's not insulting his kids. He's just very honest and that can sometimes come off harsh."
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After all, it's Halpern, not father, who would know best. Surviving Jack, premiering Thursday at 9:30/8:30c on Fox, is a semi-autobiographical comedy based on Halpern and his siblings' teenage years under the watchful of their father after their mother decided to go back to law school. "Suddenly my dad took over. He just cut back his hours and started to do all the things my mom used to do," he says. "It was right when I was kind of figuring out who I was and going through puberty and figuring out girls, so it was the worst possible time for my dad to be watching over me."
Halpern was inspired to try to write a TV series based on his own life when he realized how much one chapter in particular from his second book, I Suck at Girls, resonated with friends and fans. "The chapter where I steal porn from a homeless guy's stash," he recalls. "When I went on my book tour — that one stuck out. Everyone had their story of finding pornography for the first time."
However, Halpern admits he had mixed feelings about trying to bring his larger-than-life father to the small screen (again). "Obviously after the last time we had done it, I wanted to make sure that we weren't just passing something out there that was going to turn out like sh--," Halpern says.
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No, that's just not just colorful language Halpern throws around — he literally means sh--, as in the short-lived 2010 CBS sitcom $#*! My Dad Says, based on Halpern's Twitter feed and the book of the same name. "Things move so fast and you lose track of what you're trying to accomplish and what the tone of the show is and what the character should sound like. That first time I didn't have enough experience to sit and say, 'Nope, this is what we need to be doing,' and so it was really just on me that it turned out the way that it did," he says. "So with this one, I was like, 'Alright, we're going to sit and focus and make sure this character is represented in the way that we want.'"
This time around, Halpern says it was key that Jack Dunlevy be portrayed less as a "grumpy dad" but as someone with a little more heart and a lot more brains. "I just think he's tough, not to prove a point or anything, but I just think it's how he was brought up and his experiences," Meloni says of the character. "He's a doctor, so I think he's very clinical, very survival-of-the-fittest, survival-of-the-smartest."
Adds Halpern: "He's an incredibly smart guy who drops F-bombs."
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This dichotomy made it difficult to cast the part of Jack. "The thing about my dad is that he's really intimidating without trying to be intimidating and a lot of the actors didn't have that," Halpern says. "Chris has that thing. Look at the types of people that he's played."
Although Halpern and his team were told initially that the actor, who ended his 12-year-run as Det. Elliot Stabler on Law & Order: SVU in 2011, was not looking to return to TV, Meloni eventually read the script and was immediately intrigued. "The most appealing thing was his lack of political correctness. I really found that refreshing. I knew it would be fun to play," Meloni says. "I was open to whatever made me just connect to the material, and this one got me."
A father of two in real life, the Emmy-nominated actor also responded to Jack's touching relationship with his wife, played by Rachael Harris. "That is the relationship in which you get to see into the true inner Jack, which is how deeply he loves his family and in particular his wife. He needs his wife, as tough and independent as he is, and as sure of himself as he is, it's almost a child-like quality — his devotion for his wife," Meloni says. "It helps soften him."
Although this may take off some of Jack's edge, Meloni says these relationships will help the show strike a chord with viewers. Halpern agrees. "The most important thing is that they think its funny, but secondly, it'd be nice if people watch the show, and it triggers their own memories about growing up," he says.
So far, Surviving Jack has at least one important fan — Halpern's father. "As you can imagine he doesn't sugarcoat anything," Halpern says. "I showed him three [episodes] and he was like, 'I actually enjoy this,' which is about as high of praise that you can get."
Surviving Jack premieres Thursday at 9:30/8:30c on Fox.