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HUNGRY FOR SUCCESS

for The Brooklyn Paper
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On the surface, eating disorders might not sound like appetizing fare for a TV comedy. But Eric Schaeffer, the creator and star of the new FX series, "Starved," has set out to prove that it can be - if it is properly prepared.

An independent filmmaker and actor who jokes that his work is often semi-autobiographical because he "lacks imagination," the recovering alcoholic and former drug abuser admits he prides himself on his gift for deftly balancing dark comedy with drama.

Having also battled food issues and body-image problems for most of his life, it is no wonder that he decided to draw upon some of his experiences for a smart, half-hour comedy about a quartet of Brooklynites who suffer from eating disorders. (For those who still can’t picture it, think "Sex and the City," but with four friends talking about their eating habits in a borough coffee shop, instead of dissecting relationships and sipping Cosmos at some tony Manhattan watering hole.)

In the show, which fluctuates between wickedly funny and poignant, Schaeffer plays Sam, a neurotic, commitment-phobic commodities trader who is recovering from anorexia and compulsive overeating. Laura Benanti (from Broadway’s "Nine" and "Into the Woods") plays Billie, a bisexual, recovering anorexic-bulimic and an aspiring singer-songwriter; Sterling K. Brown (from NBC’s "Third Watch") portrays Adam, a bulimic, NYPD cop; and Del Pentecost (from ABC’s "Kingdom Hospital") plays Dan, a married writer and overweight, compulsive overeater, who has scheduled - and canceled - gastric bypass surgery several times.

Sharp-eyed Brooklynites will no doubt notice many of the series’ scenes were filmed in Williamsburg, Fulton Landing and on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. Schaeffer said he decided to film the series here instead of Manhattan because that borough has already been the setting for so many recent TV comedies.

"Brooklyn is such a cool borough," Schaeffer told GO Brooklyn. "I think we all just thought it would be kind of a cool bit of a sideways play to have it be set in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan. I drove a cab for many years and it was always fun to go to Brooklyn. When you grow up in Manhattan, [there is] not a snobbery, really, just a myopic view of New York. When I drove the cab, it was really cool because it’s such a great, fun, interesting, different part of New York City, so I think we wanted to take advantage of that."


’Insane comedy’

Schaeffer believes "Starved" fits in nicely with his films "My Life’s In Turnaround" and "If Lucy Fell," as well as his short-lived FOX series, "Too Something," because all of those works move between "very real, rich drama and very insane comedy."

"I think the format is just what I do and whether it is a feature film or an hour or a half-hour, it’s almost the same paradigm, almost the same dynamic, thematically. It’s stuff that’s really funny and stuff that’s really moving," explained the show’s executive producer, director, writer and star.

Noting how some major television networks seem to get nervous when a proposed series does not fit neatly into the drama or comedy category, Schaeffer said he found cable TV’s FX network a lot more open-minded about developing a show that featured elements of both.

"The cool thing about FX is they’re much more into ’real,’" he said of the network that gave us the frequently grim, often hilarious, one-hour Denis Leary firefighter series, "Rescue Me."

"FX is into shows that sort of sum up the real human experience, which we all know to be both very dramatic and very funny," said Schaeffer. "So, it was the perfect fit to bring the show there for my style. And to do it as a half-hour just felt like a fun format. I like half-hours. I just feel like at the end of the day, it is a comedy - even though there are a lot of dramatic moments."

Despite its delicate subject matter, Schaeffer said the show was not tough to sell to FX, mainly because he had a prior working relationship with the network’s president and general manager, John Landgraf, with whom he felt he shared a sensibility when it comes to developing projects for television.

"I knew they wanted to do a sort of edgy comedy and that’s right up my alley," noted the Manhattan native. "I think they sparked to the idea of it right away."

Although Schaeffer said FX allowed him a lot of creative freedom, he said there were times when he was reined in because the network feared the show, which is already rated TV-MA, might go too far too soon.

"There have been a couple of moments that Landgraf said: ’We love this, but it’s the first season, we’re pushing the envelope already. Already we’re going to win the contest for being a very funny, very dark show, so let’s make sure that we don’t go too far, so that people are going to be able to come with us on this ride,’" Schaeffer recalled.


Universal obsession

Schaeffer, 43, said one of the reasons he decided to create the series was to show viewers a seldom-seen side of men; basically that they, too, worry about their relationships, how they look and how they measure up to other members of their sex.

"When I was younger, I would walk in the room and my eyes would scan for pretty girls, and now they scan for [men’s] hairlines and bellies," he revealed. "I think women got a lot more of the press, historically, of being the more open, vulnerable members of our humanity, and I think that men get short shrift in that and we are very vulnerable and have all kinds of quirks and foibles and stuff about our body image and eating and weight and love that doesn’t get represented as much.

"So I think women will really enjoy [the show], because I think they love knowing that about men And I think men appreciate that, because they know we’re like that and that we check our answering machine 10 times, waiting for the call from a girl and weigh ourselves six times a day."

Noting that he wanted to enlighten and entertain, but not in a preachy or evangelistic way, Schaeffer said he hopes sharing his experiences will help people realize they’re not alone in their insecurities.

"My experience is nowhere near a unique one, and I think it is one, that in fact, is very universal," he remarked. "I think that anything that can unify is a real service."

"Starved" premieres Aug. 4 at 10 pm on cable television’s FX channel. For more information, visit www.fxnetworks.com.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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