This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“Hello? Hello?” says Betsy Brandt, holding a banana up against her ear.
The actress, best known for her supporting turn in Breaking Bad, has found an amusing way to pass time between takes on her new CBS family comedy Life in Pieces — and it involves taking advantage of her proximity to the fruit bowl in the scene at hand.
“I’m on hold,” she smirks, keeping up the joke in an effort to entertain her 8-year-old TV daughter (Giselle Eisenberg) seated across the kitchen island. But the fun comes to an end when episode director Ken Whittingham, eager to keep the cameras rolling and wrap the scene before they lose the young actress (thanks to child labor restrictions), instructs Brandt to put the banana down.
The freshman sitcom, which follows several generations of one family dealing with various stages of life, showcases an eclectic group of actors: Emmy winner James Brolin and Oscar winner Dianne Wiest star as the heads of the Short family, with their kids played by Fargo alum Colin Hanks, Newsroom vet Thomas Sadoski and Brandt.
As demonstrated by the banana phone bit, the series’ playful, light-hearted tone extends offscreen as well. At times, Stage 8 on the Fox lot feels more like the meeting place for an actual family get-together than the set of a television show. It’s exactly what Brandt was searching for her in her next act.
“It couldn’t just be good writing and a good cast — there had to be that extra-special something that no one can put their finger on,” she says, adding that the one experience she’d missed while working on her AMC hit was acting with kids. “That’s a whole other thing,” says the mom of two. “When they do well, I’m really proud of them, even though they’re not my children.”
Of course, what sets this show apart isn’t its close-knit cast but its unorthodox structure. Each episode is a series of four independent segments instead of one continuous story, which explains the odd jumbles of seemingly unrelated words (like “Ponzi Sex Paris Bounce” and “Sleepy Email Brunch Tree”) that make up the titles — they help the writers distinguish one episode-within-the-episode from another.
“What’s challenging about the format is the fact that we aren’t doing 22 stories this year — we’re doing 88,” says creator Justin Adler of his 20th Century Fox TV-produced series, which got a full-season order in an otherwise discouraging broadcast season. “We have to generate a huge amount of material.”
Not surprisingly, the segmented format is a hit with the cast, as it affords them major scheduling advantages. Adds co-star Zoe Lister-Jones of other perks: “You get to explore characters in a really different way than on a show where you’re jumping between A stories, B stories and C stories.” She also points out that this structure quickens the pace, forcing the cast to get through an entire arc in six minutes.
For Hanks, it’s a welcome challenge. “You realize, ‘Oh, maybe it’s not better to trapeze my way through this bit, and it’s actually better to be more succinct and streamline it,’ ” he says. “It makes you more on your game.”