Jay Harrington is best known for wooing the ladies on the small screen—as he did on Desperate Housewives and Private Practice—but in Better Off Ted, a new office comedy premiering tonight on ABC, he’s the head of a research and development company which, rather unromantically, tests deadly teeth whiteners and unbreakable plates. Ted grapples with the demands of his nefarious company and boss (played by Portia de Rossi), and tries to navigate his life with a daughter in the process. The show’s quirkiness and almost-too-cute cubicle romance bring to mind The Office (Ted and Linda could easily become TV’s new Jim and Pam) and make this show enough reason to risk a job in the real corporate world.
The 37-year-old Harrington talked to The Daily Beast about stealing from NBC, shooting hoops with Portia de Rossi, and beef grown without cows.
Tell us a little bit about your character Ted, who runs research and development at a slightly shady company.
Ted is a product of his environment and he’s really enjoys his job, and is certainly not a victim. He finds himself in the precarious situation of being a moral guy in an immoral world at work.
Ted has to hold by his rule of the ‘one office affair,’ otherwise he’s that guy who sleeps around. But Linda tells him, ‘It’s not like voting, you can punch more than one ballot.’
Working for Veridian Dynamics means he’s looking out for his client’s best interests, but that doesn’t necessarily benefit anyone else. Does that make him a bad guy?
There’s a line that comes up later in an episode when we’re testing a teeth whitener, and the scientists, Phil and Lem, say to me, “Now remember, if we do this it will kill all the world’s fish, but it will whiten teeth in an instant.” And Ted takes a beat, looks at them and says, “ All the world’s fish?” Of course he says, “Oh no, no, of course we can’t do this.” There’s a push-and-pull of what we can and can’t get away with.
How much of the show is based on what actually happens at these huge, competitive companies? Does someone come in and say “make a mouse that can withstand 195 degrees?”
One of the upcoming episodes we make beef grown in a lab without cows, which is actually something that’s not that far off. Other things are a little fantastical. We make an unbreakable dinnerware, and I went down to the lab to see how the guys were doing, and they had the dishes on a pulley at a firing range, and were shooting a gun to prove that it was unbreakable. Of course it weighed 27 pounds, so it wasn’t quite ready for the public. And the beef grown without cows was a success, but at the end of the episode you realize it costs $10,000 a pound, so it wasn’t quite ready for mass distribution. Open the Wall Street Journal Science section and I’m sure you’ll find all sorts of weird things being developed.
Portia de Rossi plays your demanding boss on the show. I don’t want to say she’s a hardass, but…her character’s kind of a hardass.
She couldn’t be anything further from that in person. Our dressing rooms are right next to each other and in between takes she’s in hers painting portraits. She’s great, she does everything: dances, paints, and is quite a great girl. The thing about her is she’s so funny and is really good at what she does. She’s nothing like her characters, and she’s played this one a few different times, like in Ally McBeal. I came in thinking she would be a little bit like that, but she’s really not. We have a hoop outside our dressing room and she bought a basketball, so we play in between takes.
Its tone and setting is similar to The Office, and both shows started with the under-the-radar romance. How is the relationship between Ted and Linda (played by Andrea Anders) going to progress?
We are certainly two people who really like each other a lot, and she actually gets to know my daughter, Rose, who also really likes her. In one of the later episodes Linda sets me up on a date with a friend of hers because she wants me off the table and unavailable so she can move on.
Do you think there’s a danger in getting them together too soon? That’s usually a fear in half-hour shows.
We dance around them. She gets a boyfriend early on—it’s actually an ex-boyfriend that calls her back—and she kind of waits for me to tell her she shouldn’t go, and I don’t because I have to hold by my rule of the “one office affair,” otherwise you’re that guy who sleeps around. But Linda tells him, “It’s not like voting, you can punch more than one ballot.” Hopefully we’ll get another half a season or full season to go more into their relationship.
Linda’s character hates her job and rebels—like most of corporate America—by stealing all the office creamer packets. Have you ever done something similar?
I remember I took my metal nameplate for parking at Universal Studios after Coupling was canceled and said, “There, take that NBC!” I still have it in my garage—it’s parking for me only.
A few years ago the expectations were much higher for shows to come right out of the gate with huge ratings and built-in fan bases.
Exactly. It’s amazing to think of how television sells itself. The upfront presentations are literally where advertisers give the networks money upfront after watching eight minutes of a show. So when the numbers aren’t necessarily to Coca-Cola’s expectations, they’ll claim, “You said 20 million people would watch this show. Only 14 million are, so where are we?” It puts the pressure on the network to either cancel or tweak the show. The good thing about Better Off Ted is we’re done shooting, we don’t have to go back and worry about what the numbers were. We just know that we did our jobs.
You were also on Desperate Housewives as Teri Hatcher’s love interest for a few episodes. They are airing some dramatic previews that claim someone will be killed off in the next few weeks. Any guesses?
I’m not sure, but I did read that Neal McDonough, who plays Nicollette Sheridan’s love interest, apparently said too much of something that he shouldn’t have. So now my money is on her.
You’re a really big sports fan—do you have your bets placed for March Madness?
I went to Syracuse University and they had quite a weekend. I’m also an Irish Catholic from Boston, so between March Madness starting Thursday and St. Patrick’s Day yesterday, [I’m set].
And finally, if you actually were the head of R&D, which product would you ask your scientists to invent?
Going along with the St. Paddy’s Day theme, let’s say green beer that doesn’t stain your teeth, and that doesn’t make you hung-over. I would be a very rich man.
Kara Cutruzzula is a culture reporter at The Daily Beast and recent graduate of UCLA.