“Bent” 9 p.m. Wednesday, NBC
LOS ANGELES — As executive producer of the new NBC comedy “Bent,” Tad Quill is responsible for everything from writing the first episode to making sure the caterer doesn’t poison anyone. But his most important role may be the most underappreciated one: playing matchmaker.
Good sitcoms — and this is one of them — need snappy dialogue, a compelling premise and engaging characters. But the most critical ingredient is chemistry between the lead actors, especially when the story hinges on a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship.
Amanda Peet plays Alex, a recent divorcee who hires a gambling addict, Pete (David Walton), to remodel her house. You’ve seen this setup before — she’s cautious, he’s wild; she’s responsible, he’s unreliable — but it more than holds up because the two banter like a modern-day Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
You’re 99.9 percent sure they’ll end up in each other’s arms, but watching them do the long, slow dance to get there is still a treat.
Peet, who was attached to the project from the start, read with about 20 actors and Quill saw more than 50 guys before casting Walton, who starred in the short-lived sitcoms “Perfect Couples” and “100 Questions.”
“You know when it’s right instantaneously,” said Quill, who spent his teenage years in Minnesota after his father, an insurance broker, was transferred to Minneapolis. “It’s one thing to have actors saying a joke that’s kind of funny, but when two people who really know what they’re doing come together, you can be laughing out loud.”
Walton isn’t sure what makes this partnership work so well.
“Chemistry, like in real life, is hard to put words around,” he said. “You either have it with somebody or you don’t.”
It helps to work with Peet, who has previously sizzled with Bruce Willis and John Cusack. She specializes in tough, intelligent characters who slowly reveal their vulnerabilities, fears and a desperate need for something more intimate than a handshake.
“It’s not something I think about or set out to accomplish,” said Peet, whose last series, Aaron Sorkin’s “Live From the Sunset Strip,” also called for romantic electricity. “Tad’s script has a lot of sexual tension and sexual suspense. You just play that.”
Of course, no sitcom can survive as just a two-character operation. Jeffrey Tambor provides plenty of relief as Pete’s lovelorn father, who considers himself an artist because he plays piano at Nordstrom. Quill reshot parts of the pilot to add D.B. Smoove, best known as Larry David’s cohort on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and Jesse Clemons from “Friday Night Lights,” who beef up roles in Pete’s construction crew.
“You can’t just be a romantic comedy,” Quill said. “There’s got to be a whole larger ensemble aspect to it so you’ve got different places to go for stories.”
Quill certainly landed the right combination when it comes to casting. Take it from Tambor, who previously starred in “Arrested Development” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”
“Tad has a great ear for the page, but he also has a great eye,” he said. “I’ve fallen in love. Here we go again.”