Even if the murder of Desperate Housewives' Nora is still giving you the heebie-jeebies about venturing to your local grocery store, it's entirely safe to check out TBS' supermarket-themed sitcom 10 Items or Less, premiering tonight at 11 pm/ET. Fronting this semi-improvised look at a family-run market is John Lehr (I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here), who not only serves as cocreator, executive producer and writer, but is penning a blog about the program for TVGuide.com.
Explaining 10 Items' supermarket setting to TVGuide.com during a recent visit to the set, Lehr said, "We wanted to do something relatable. We wanted to have characters who are absurd and funny, but also ones you feel could truly exist, instead of the comedy coming from making fun of people."
Lehr says the program combines both scripted and improvised moments, which makes it not unlike Curb Your Enthusiasm, while the workplace romances that pop up draw comparisons to The Office." WKRP in Cincinnati was a show that I really liked while growing up," says Lehr, "so we wanted to give it a bit of that feel as well."
While TBS is new to original comedy programming, the cable superstation was Lehr's first choice of outlet. "We like the audience that they broadcast to," he notes.
10 Items or Less isn't just set in a grocery store; it actually was filmed in a bona fide Jon's supermarket in the Los Angeles area. "My father-in-law is an art dealer and one of his clients owns this chain," explains Lehr, who worked out a deal to set up shop in the real-life venue. The only caveat was that it be left open for business during filming, which Lehr heartily embraced. "It keeps it real. Customers make their way into episodes. We had some [paid] extras there, yes, but some of the funniest stuff came from real people."
Lehr stars as Leslie Pool, a man who returns to Dayton, Ohio, to run the Greens & Grains grocery store that he has inherited from his father. "Leslie has a big heart and means well, but he's so oblivious," Lehr surveys. "He almost always makes the wrong move. Yet sometimes, out of sheer accident, his wrong move will end up working out for the best."
While Friends fiends might recognize Lehr from his stint as "Chandler's roommate before Joey," eagle-eyed TV fans should also find familiar the actors playing Greens & Grains' other dysfunctional employees. They include:
• Robert Clendenin as Carl, Leslie's sidekick who can't quite put together that he fathered a child with Yolanda the produce purveyor. Carl is not only far from being the sharpest knife in the drawer but, "I'm not even sure he's a knife," Clendenin quips. "He may be one of the weirder tools, like a lemon peeler or a garlic press. You're glad you have it, but you never really use it." In prior gigs, Clendenin appeared on Housewives, as a crazy man who shot up a courtroom, and on Will & Grace, as the director of a sexual-harassment industrial film starring Karen and Jack.
• Kirsten Gronfield as Ingrid, the Renaissance Festival-loving customer-service representative. "People keep asking me where things are," says Gronfield, referring to the real-life customers populating the shopping aisles. "I finally asked the [real] manager for a list. I don't want to lead people astray." Gronfield appeared in the Dennis Quaid/Rene Russo film Yours, Mine and Ours. ("Rene was extremely nice," she recalls.)
• Christopher Liam Moore as Richard, the dignified cashier... who dreams of becoming a professional ice dancer. "He's been in ‘The Lord of the Rings on Ice' and ‘The Passion of the Christ on Ice,'" his portrayer boasts. "He's [also] the conscience of the store. He takes his job very seriously." Unlike other characters, the openly gay Richard isn't in line to get a love interest. "But if the show gets picked up, we'll talk about him having one." The actor, who played a court stenographer and judge's clerk on Judging Amy, shares, "In real-life [Amy Brenneman and I] are old, old friends," he reports.
• Greg Davis Jr. as Buck, the grocery bagger who's studying pre-med. "I can separate your eggs from your detergents and perform open heart surgery," he quips in character. Davis, who has guested on The Shield and CSI: NY, says, "It was a huge jump to come to this show." And a valuable education: "Bread and eggs go on top," he notes.
• Roberta Valderrama as Yolanda, the power behind the produce counter and the mother of Carl's child. "He claims I took advantage of him," an in-character Valderrama shrugs. The actress — no relation to That '70s Show's Wilmer — recalls a turn as a candy striper who stalked Erik Palladino on ER. "I wouldn't say [a role like that] is against type or is my type," she muses. "It could just be a secret type that I try to tap into."
• Chris Payne Gilbert as Todd, the sexy butcher who hopes to one day become a NASCAR driver. "Girls like him, and he knows it," Gilbert says of his alter ego. Might Ingrid capture this lunk's heart? "She's so the opposite of him, he's intrigued and fearful of it." Like Lehr, Gilbert has appeared on Friends, in "The One with Rachel's Phone Number."
• And Jennifer Elise Cox as Amy, Leslie's high-school crush and now the manager of the Super Value Mart, Greens & Grains' big-box rival. Best known for her run as Jan in the Brady Bunch movies, Cox recently appeared on Nip/Tuck, and was a late addition to the 10 Items cast, which first assembled a few years ago. "I give her full credit," raves Lehr. "The cast was pretty tight and for her to come on board and fit in on all levels... she's a real talent."
In addition to being able to employ customers in scenes, filming in a working supermarket had its share of benefits for the 10 Items cast and crew. For starters, craft services rocked! And actors had no excuses not to make sure their pantries were well-stocked. "I have a little girl named Jules, who is 6 months old," says Lehr. "So my wife would call me and say, ‘We need diapers!'"
One "real" moment that didn't make it into 10 Items or Less was a robbery scene that would have resulted in the aforementioned type of Housewives showdown. "There was an actual holdup [in the store] while we were shooting," Lehr reveals. "Security tackled this guy, who had a gun. We had no idea it was going on, but what's amazing is that we had pitched a holdup [episode] to TBS, a Dog Day Afternoon homage. But they shot it down. Now, we might revisit that!"
Pick up the Nov. 20 TV Guide for even more on TBS' new 10 Items or Less.
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