When it came to looking for his next TV project after logging 12 seasons on Law & Order: SVU, Christopher Meloni had one simple mandate.
"No grim circumstances for 22 one-hour episodes. I just couldn't do that schedule again. So I could be grim for 13 episodes," Meloni told reporters Monday at Fox's Television Critics Association winter previews about his new show Surviving Jack. "Then this pilot plopped on my desk and I said, 'This is the funniest thing I've read all year.' It also helped matters that this role would include none of that will-they-or-won't-they tension that heavily defined his star-making role of Det. Elliott Stabler opposite Mariska Hargitay's Det. Olivia Benson. "They said I could have sex with Rachael [Harris] in the script and forget about it, done," Meloni joked.
On the new '90s-set Fox comedy, Meloni plays a married family man who must take over the brunt of parenting duties when his wife begins law school. Although Jack and his wife, Joanne (Harris), share a very loving relationship — "I'm probably the kryptonite to his meanness," Harris said — the same cannot be said for Jack's relationship with their children, Frankie (Connor Buckley) and Rachel (Claudia Lee), whom he rules with an iron first. "He's authentic whether you agree with that authenticity or not," Meloni said. 'Sometimes I think of Archie Bunker without the racism. ... Sometimes what came out of his mouth was jarring, but it came from his heart."
If the father figure spouting tough love sounds a little familiar, it's because he is. Surviving Jack is based on the book I Suck at Girls, written by $#*! My Dad Says author Justin Halpern. Like $#*! My Dad Says, I Suck at Girls is based on Halpern's real-life experiences with his acerbic father. When discussing the two shows, Halpern said Surviving Jack is a strong interpretation of his father. "Feces My Dad Says sucked. It was really bad," Halpern said of the short-lived sitcom. "I think that show was very much the wrong tone. My dad is a character who as a person is unintentionally funny."
Halpern also emphasized how important it was to show the father character's heart on Jack to balance out his tough side. "My dad was a guy that said, 'I love you' nonstop. It wasn't this relationship where he was always taking me down a notch," Halpern said. "You're allowed to get away with a little more when you know those two characters care about each other a lot. .... We just never wanted to the character to be mean; we just wanted the character to be honest." Added executive producer Bill Lawrence, "I don't think it's funny if there's no affection beneath or behind it."
Also unlike $#*! My Dad Says, Halpern's real-life dad, who is a doctor, will not be dumbed down for comedic effect. "He is this highly intelligent guy and if you start from that place and he approaches everything scientifically, you can have a lot fun," Halpern said. "What made me laugh is he either A) the smartest person in the world or B) quite convinced that he's the smartest person in the room," Lawrence said.
Surviving Jack will also draw comparisons to another sitcom, ABC's The Goldbergs. Both are based on their respective creators' real-life families and both take place in the past. But while The Goldbergs has embraced its 1980s setting with an upcoming Goonies episode and Karate Kid references, the producers said '90s nostalgia won't play as big of a role on Surviving Jack. "The show takes place in 1991 because that's when it took place for us," Halpern said. He particularly liked writing about an era before the Internet when, as Halpern recalled onstage, access to things like pornography and dirty magazines was much of an elaborate process.
"I think that [The Goldbergs] is a kind of a little more nostalgic, slice-of-life kind of in The Wonder Years vein," Lawrence said. "For me, to see Chris inhabit this character, I don't think — once you watch the first two or three episodes — that you'd say that the two shows are in the same vein at all."
Surviving Jack premieres Thursday, March 27 at 8:30/7:30c on Fox.