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New show ''Ink'' got off to a rocky start

The new sitcom stars Ted Danson and his wife, Mary Steenburgen

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Perhaps it’s not the meatiest scoop of the season, but here is the unedited truth about Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, the married stars of CBS’ much-revamped sitcom, Ink: They are a disgustingly happy couple. A charming, no-you-go-first team, bursting with collective and colliding energies, gushing with mushy sentiment and mutual appreciation.

Just don’t expect to see much beyond the colliding energies when you tune in to CBS Mondays at 8:30, beginning Oct. 21. ”We had no desire to play us,” Danson says of Jack and Carrie, the divorced journalists who are thrown back together at a New York paper. ”If you’re lovey-dovey at home and have to be lovey-dovey at work — that’s no fun.”

And that’s about all Danson can tell you about Ink‘s characters. The show, as no doubt you’ve heard, has become one of the costliest, most discussed of the many troubled freshman sitcoms of the 1996 fall season. ”We don’t totally know who these characters are yet,” Steenburgen admitted in late July, and that was painfully obvious to everyone involved — the stars, DreamWorks (the studio behind the series), and CBS — when they viewed the pilot, a decidedly flat affair that failed to capture one jot of the couple’s natural chemistry. On Aug. 29, DreamWorks and CBS announced they were scrapping the four episodes shot to date and starting from scratch with a new executive producer, Murphy Brown creator Diane English. The setback meant the original Sept. 16 premiere wasn’t possible, so Rhea Perlman’s new Pearl will occupy the Ink slot until the October debut. DreamWorks chief of TV Dan McDermott is betting English will add ”a sharp, contemporary point of view” and deliver the kind of ”sophisticated, romantic, adult comedy” the studio and network had originally hoped for. With production costs reportedly in the range of $1 million per episode, the financial loss is staggering, but, says McDermott, the bottom line is ”we’d rather make a great show than make an airdate.”

Starring on a show that hobbled out of the gate is nothing new for Danson; Cheers took a few years to become a hit, ranking 71 out of 80 shows its first season. He’s prepared to grow into his Ink part, and hopes CBS will stick with its original 22-episode agreement, thus allowing the show to grow on viewers. A bigger challenge, says the actor, was performing before a live audience for the first time since 1993: ”It hit me subliminally, like Pavlov’s dogs,” Danson recalls. ”What am I doing? How do I be funny? Where are my lemons?”

Leslie Moonves believes Danson doth protest too much. The CBS Entertainment president says his star is too blissed out to worry. ”Ted has said three or four times, ‘What a lucky guy I am. I get to work with the woman I love 14 hours a day!”’ Steenburgen’s secret: ”I’m passionate about everything, and I encourage him to listen to his instincts…. That, plus heavy petting between scenes.”

It was the 1994 film Pontiac Moon that brought the pair together. They began dating while shooting the offbeat comedy and married after finishing the NBC blockbuster Gulliver’s Travels. Wanting to stick close to their L.A.-based family (four kids from previous marriages), the pair began shopping around for a TV series, finally settling on a deal with DreamWorks for the resulting show. The prospect of Danson’s returning to the small screen provoked a high-stakes bidding war, with CBS ultimately beating out NBC. Not that Moonves saw Ink as a one-man show. ”As a matter of fact,” he confides, ”I said, ‘Mary’s the sleeper in this equation.”’ And Ink, hopes Moonves, will be the sleeper hit of his new Big Comedy Monday lineup — a night of boomer-friendly sitcoms that kicks off at 8 with Cosby. ”Ted and Mary represent exactly what we’re going for: 25- to 54-year-olds,” says Moonves.