Bruce Fretts
September 11, 1998 AT 04:00 AM EDT

JESSE
What were the first words that sprang into NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield’s head when Christina Applegate’s name was mentioned for the leading role in the new sitcom Jesse? ”Jump, leap, grab, get!” recalls the practically salivating exec. ”I’m a fan.”

After her 10 years as scantily attired airhead Kelly Bundy on Fox’s smutcom Married…With Children, Applegate must be used to that reaction. But Jesse shows off a different side of the 25-year-old actress. She plays a levelheaded single mom raising her 10-year-old son (Eric Lloyd) while simultaneously studying to be a nurse and working as a barmaid at the Buffalo beer hall owned by her gruff father (Law & Order vet George Dzundza). ”Since the ’80s, we’ve heard so much about single-parent homes and kids having kids,” says creator Ira Ungerleider. ”And I thought, There isn’t a sitcom about a young, single mom. That might be good.”

Especially in a season filled with interchangeable single-dad sitcoms. But will viewers accept Applegate as a non-bimbo? ”It’ll take about five seconds,” predicts executive producer David Crane. ”In the teaser, you’re like, ‘Oh, God, she’s in the cocktail [waitress outfit], and there’s cleavage.’ Then you realize, ‘Wait, she’s a person.”’

”Because everybody always thinks of her as Kelly Bundy, you never think of her as an actress,” says Ungerleider. Applegate adds, ”Some people will be surprised, and some people already knew I was just playing a character all those years.”

As Jesse, Applegate is terrifically appealing, even if the rest of the show could use some tinkering. NBC has already recast one of the brothers, replacing Jenny survivor Rafer Weigel with David DeLuise (another one of Dom’s sons), and changed the show’s vague working title, All My Life, to the more succinct Jesse. ”It was important to NBC to have a really short, snappy name that was easy to remember,” explains Ungerleider. ”They end up shortening all the titles to one word anyway, like ‘On an all-new Caroline…’ or ‘On an all-new Susan…”’

Not that anyone wants Jesse to get mixed up with those shows. ”It’s not about a young career woman in her late 20s to early 30s who’s neurotic,” says Applegate. ”It’s more of a family-oriented comedy.” Besides, says NBC’s Littlefield, ”those were all about women at magazines, and we have a new rule at NBC: No more women at magazines.” And don’t think we aren’t thankful for that.

On the other hand, it’s not as if NBC has had a whole lot of luck with family comedies lately (Something So Right, The Tony Danza Show, and Built to Last didn’t). Ungerleider insists, though, that Jesse is ”not a typical family comedy. There are no lessons, and it’s not about precocious kids who always say the hilarious one-liner.”

Applegate admits Jesse is a strange fit on NBC’s traditionally no-kids-allowed Thursday lineup, but adds, ”We have the same writers as Friends and Veronica’s Closet, so it has the same flavor and essence.” (All three shows are executive-produced by Crane, Marta Kauffman, and Kevin S. Bright, whose success with Friends led to a primo Tuesday- or Thursday-night time-slot guarantee from NBC.) Also, as Crane points out, ”Frasier is really a family comedy. It doesn’t have a little kid in it, but it’s about sibling relationships and parent relationships. And Jesse’s romantic life is an enormous part of her world, so in that regard, it’s certainly in line with Friends.”

In fact, much of Jesse‘s pilot concerns her burgeoning romance with her hunky Chilean neighbor, Diego (Bruno Campos). Just don’t look for a long and tortured courtship — or for their relationship to be the focus of the series. ”It has as much weight as her family or her job does,” says Ungerleider. Concludes Applegate: ”I don’t think it’s going to be like Sam and Diane or Rachel and Ross. It’s not going to be The Jesse and Diego Show.” Nah, that title’s way too long.

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