Imaginary Mary on ABC
By Valerie Milano
Pasadena, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/30/17 – “I just want great writing and great co-stars, and to have fun, and at the end of the day, I just want to bring some succor to people and make them laugh. Keep it simple, you know?” Jenna Elfman
Imaginary Mary is a slight but intelligent live action/animated hybrid driven by the comedic talent, energy and charisma of Jenna Elfman. The time slot (8:30 p.m. on Wednesday) is a family friendly zone sandwiched between The Goldbergs and Modern Family; a spot previously occupied by second season marvel Speechless.
Imaginary Mary delivered solid if unspectacular numbers in its series premier. Speechless delivered a 2.0 in the slot in its premier last fall; …Mary managed a 1.4 in the same slot; a slight drop off from their lead-in (The Goldbergs pulled in a 1.7 in the demo).
Mary is the imaginary friend of Alice (Elfman), a sharp, independent and successful career woman. Alice conjured her imaginary friend (voiced by SNL’s Ratchel Dratch) in her childhood to help her through the vicissitudes of a fractured family unit and puberty. Long since forgotten, Mary reappears to caution Alice against falling in love with a hunky, evolved and razor challenged single dad Ben (Stephen Schneider) who has three high-octane kids in full destructo mode.
Producers and writers have obviously taken note of the diplomatic immunity granted by censors to animated characters in network comedy (i.e. Family Guy, American Dad, The Simpsons…etc.). And our animated star (Mary) makes full use of this license, making oblique lesbian references, advocating drunken debauchery as an antidote to love sickness, and constantly pushing her flesh and blood protégé to reject the traditional roles and responses that conformist society imposes on women in particular and humanity in general.
Wednesday’s night’s series premier was a pilot episode carrying the usual burden of trying to pack too much information into a half-hour bag. Boyfriend Ben is a little too perfect and the three kids in tow shape shift from cute to obnoxious in the blink of an eye. Mary remains the Greek Chorus, giving a creative twist to the overused ABC sit-com device of the off-screen narrator. Mary clues us in to Alice’s real thoughts and feelings even as she’s uttering the inane platitudes all women use to get through the day and avoid making enemies. Also, our animated heroine also gets all the big laughs.
The characters and the premise offer great potential and opportunity for growth and depth. There were also some standard issue contrivances for the sake of brevity and family viewing; the kids horrible behavior was too easily dismissed, Alice’s conflicts with Ben and her doubts about becoming a step mom three times over were too easily resolved. However, the ace card of Imaginary Mary remains Mary, deflating the BS and saying everything that we all think and feel but (all too often) fail to say for ourselves.
The TCA, THT and others, recently had the opportunity to speck with Jenna Elfman, Stephen Schneider, Rachel Dratch, and executive producers Adam F. Goldberg, David Guarascio, Doug Robinson, and Patrick Osborne.
Elfman talked expansively about the technical challenges of mixing animation and live action, JENNA ELFMAN: “When we were filming Looney Tunes, we had men in green suits, green screens, green little balls on sticks. There was a lot of, like, in the real world, green screen elements when we were filming this, because it’s CGI. It’s a whole different sort of approach to animation. We had rehearsal with a stuffed, life-size puppet, and we had an amazing puppeteer, so we would rehearse with her. And we had a comedic actress on set to do all the lines, so I felt like I had a comedic partner, because Rachel is in New York. And then we would film one take with the puppet, so that the animators had a reference for her in that live space. And then they would take her away and there would be nothing. So I didn’t even have a green ball. I had nothing. It was like nothing, an independent chair. And then she’d be walking across the room, and she’d hop up on furniture, and then she’d come near me. So oftentimes I’d have several different eye lines in the set with different dimension focal points, and doing a scene with him and he can’t see her, so it was actually a really great challenge comically to maintain the scene with her, and the believability, the focal points, while doing the scene with him and the kids. But that’s how it was different, is I literally had no reference except during rehearsal.”
Rachel Dratch spoke about the unique challenges of playing a character without being able to interact with her co-star, RACHEL DRATCH: “I would record seeing the scenes already shot. I would see the puppet thing, and so I didn’t have to match it exactly, but I felt like I was acting with Jenna, because I had the advantage of seeing her on the screen right there. So they play her line right before I said mine, so I felt like I had this sort of fake give and take with the actors that were already up there. And, you know, just like in any voiceover. You try different ways. You find, oh, this needs to be more of a serious moment, or you can really go wild here. So, you know, I had that luxury that you might not have if you’re just on set and you have to get things done.”
Executive Producer Adam Goldberg talked about the initial inspiration for Imaginary Mary, ADAM F. GOLDBERG: “I think it really began because we saw Patrick’s short, “Feast,” which won the Academy Award. And he had the idea for doing a show about an imaginary friend. And I had an ABC show on at the time, and Doug heard this idea from Patrick, and we just kind of assembled a team. David has been my boss twice, so I went to David. He was working on “The Goldbergs” as well. I thought his kind of life story would really fit in well with that idea. So that’s how it kind of came together.”