Whitney Pastorek
April 14, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s early March and the cast of J.J. Abrams’ new ABC dramedy, What About Brian, are working overtime, thanks to reshoots with a new actress (Everwood‘s Sarah Lancaster) who stepped in at the last minute to play a corner of the show’s love triangle. But the real problem on set today is Tom Cruise, who is roaming around the soundstage, visiting his Mission: Impossible III director, Abrams. As most of the cast gape at the movie star, only Lancaster stays away — but not because she’s playing it cool. ”I just want to keep him as this perfect being,” she murmurs dreamily.

Alas, this is a story about the project Abrams is shepherding, not Cruise. And the show — which premieres April 16 at 10 p.m. — ventures away from Alias and Lost and into old-school Abrams territory: a perennially single titular character (7th Heaven‘s Barry Watson) surrounded by hitched friends. It could be sold as the male Felicity. ”I wanted to write about marriage, but I felt like the single guy was the perfect foil,” says creator Dana Stevens (City of Angels), whom Abrams hails for her ”very distinct” POV. Casting Brian was a challenge (”He has to be romantic, funny, sympathetic but he can’t be a nerd,” Stevens says), and Watson is thrilled to land a part he says leaves plenty of room for growth. ”I was this guy five years ago…. We’ll see what happens if we can get this show going.” Wait: if? ”You never know. They could cut us off in a second for the stupidest reason.” Sheesh. Tom Cruise needs to teach that guy about optimism.

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