NBC’s romantic comedy series “Friends With Benefits” hasn’t had the smoothest road to your television. It was slated for a mid-season premiere, but as enthusiasm for the show fizzled, it was pushed back repeatedly. Certainly there’s the issue of the series being overshadowed by the film of the same name, which is currently in theaters starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis.
Then there’s the fact that the network hasn’t bothered to support the show — relegating it to a summer Friday night burn-off schedule, with minimal promotion, never bodes well. Still, despite a lack of confidence from the new regime at NBC, we’re charmed by the show. And if your Friday night date night is a bust, it’s just the remedy you need.
It certainly comes with a pedigree. The pilot was penned by “(500) Days of Summer” writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber and was directed by David Dobkin, of “Wedding Crashers” fame. Executive producers David Nevins and Brian Grazer have critical favorite “Arrested Development” on their impressive resumes.
Ackles — formerly Harris — is best known from her role as the bitchy cheerleader (and master manipulator) Rachel on “One Tree Hill,” and as resident sexy stoner Vanessa in the “Harold & Kumar” movies.
When we interview her on the “Friends With Benefits” set, though, Ackles barely resembles the high-maintenance redhead we see on “One Tree Hill” reruns — and not just because Sara is a brunette. Ackles shuffles off set in sweats and slippers, digging into her lunch as the scene is reset on the next stage. “Is it rude to be eating something this spicy when I’m in the middle of a sex scene?” she wonders out loud.
Like the movie that shares its name, the sitcom has no shortage of love scenes. “Sara’s a really different character for me. She’s a doctor; she’s a pediatric resident. She’s sort of got everything in her life worked out, except for love,” Ackles says, then laughs. “There’s lots of sex, though. I guess she’s got that in common with the rest of [the characters I’ve played].”
More often than not, Sara is sleeping with Ben. Initially, it’s an unapologetically casual relationship. They’re platonic pals, drinking beer and sharing stories from the bad date trenches; they just occasionally use each other for a little relief. Their friendship is somewhat unlikely given how different their life goals are, though. While Sara is tirelessly searching for the love of her life, Ben is happy to play the field.
“Sara is smart and successful, but she goes to work every day and she sees all these babies and couples,” Ackles says, noting that this is her favorite of all the roles she’s played in her career. “She wants to have that happy ending; she wants a husband and a family. She’s looking for the love of her life for the long term, and she feels like she’s running out of time to have the life that she wants to have.”
It’s a sentiment that Ackles says she can relate to. “I’m from Louisiana. All of my girlfriends from high school and college got married really young. They’ve all got husbands and kids, the whole thing. I saw all of that and I ran like hell,” she admits. “I ran from that, completely. People at home had these expectations for what a woman is supposed to do in her twenties, and I had very different goals. I worked really hard. I was supporting myself, I had a career, I owned my own home. Then suddenly I looked around and I had all of my ducks in a row and I realized that I forgot something. You know, you have everything you want and nobody to share it with, and that’s kind of lonely. It was tough for me to admit that.”
She grins. “I’m good now, though,” she says. “Between this role and the guy, I’m literally the happiest I’ve ever been.” She’s referring, of course, to her marriage to “Supernatural” star Jensen Ackles — the couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary this May.
While Ackles may have met her match, her character’s search for companionship is a comedy of errors. “She’s so neurotic and just obsessed with being charming,” she says of Sara. “She goes out on these insane dates and she thinks she’s Katherine Heigl, doing this romantic comedy thing. She finds these guys — good looking guys with good jobs. They seem really reliable, and then they’re complete freaks.”
At the end of these terrible nights, though, Ben is always just a phone call away. “I think [the audience] is going to want them together in the end,” Ackles says. “Don’t get me wrong – he’s terrible for her. On paper, they should never work, but you still want them to.”
Tune in Friday nights at 8 p.m. EST for back-to-back “Friends With Benefits” episodes.