"Sordid Lives" Back In Action

In this image released by the Logo network, Olivia Newton-John stars as Bitsy Mae in a scene from "Sordid Lives: The Series," premiering Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 10 p.m. EDT on the Logo network.
AP Photo
On "Sordid Lives: The Series," the colorful folk in a certain Texas town are back in action after having won an avid following with the 1996 play and 2000 movie of the same name.

For the 12-episode comedy, creator-writer-director Del Shores has reunited stars from his film including Bonnie Bedelia, Olivia Newton-John, Beth Grant and Leslie Jordan, who are joined by recruits Rue McClanahan and Caroline Rhea.

What results is a riotous saga, larger than life but not far from the truth as it depicts small-town life imbued with the Spirit, cigarette smoke and self-administered Valium; pecan pie, whiskey shots at the local bar and undying love of country music superstar Tammy Wynette. And various sides of the sexual equation.

For instance, Jordan plays Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram, a drag queen fixated on Wynette and locked in a mental ward, where he's subjected to therapy to "de-homosexualize" him.

He's not the only member of the family with issues. His handsome young nephew, Ty (Jason Dottley), has set off for West Hollywood, where he struggles as an actor while trying to accept his homosexuality after being raised, he says, "rigid Southern Baptist."

"Sordid Lives" premieres Wednesday (July 23) at 10 p.m. EDT on cable's Logo network, which targets lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender viewers. But this comedy just might bring in the broader audience it deserves.

"It was the funniest script I'd read since `Golden Girls,"' says McClanahan, 73, who plays pious, slightly addled Peggy Ingram, Brother Boy's elderly mother.

"The same way I knew in 'Golden Girls' I wanted to play Blanche, I knew I wanted to play Peggy. They're 180 degrees different, of course, except for one thing: They're both looking for love.

"Peggy finds it," she adds with a twinkle in her eye.

She's discussing her show at Logo's Manhattan headquarters alongside co-star Jordan (known for his pint-size stature and expansive demeanor in shows such as "Will & Grace" and "Boston Legal"), as well as Shores, with TV credits ranging from "Queer as Folk" to "Touched by an Angel."

Spoiler alert: Late in the series, Peggy has sex with an unlikely boyfriend.

"And I'm on top!" McClanahan crows.

"And still wearing her hat," notes Shores.

"I've just come from church. The flowers from the hat are falling in my face. I'm hanging on to his undershirt like it's the reins of a horse. 'Ride 'em, cowboy!"' All discreetly edited for basic cable. "And then the bed broke!"

"It truly broke," says Shores. "We didn't plan it."

"And I've got this bad knee," says McClanahan, who continues to recover from surgery last summer. "This was in January, when it was still really bad. And I thought: We CAN'T fall off this bed! So I reached out and grabbed on to the windowsill for the rest of the scene."

Photos: Olivia Newton-John
With "Sordid Lives," Shores drew on his background in tiny Winters, Texas, where his father was a Southern Baptist preacher and his mother was a high school drama coach. But subbing for Winters in the series was Shreveport, La., where the budget was tight and the pace breakneck: 36 days for the dozen half-hours.

"Since I had already written all the episodes, we block-shot it, like a movie" - shooting scenes for all the episodes at each particular location in one setup, which saves time. "And the cast worked for less than their usual fees."

"You know what I realized?" muses McClanahan. "I made more money on one episode of 'Golden Girls' than I made on 12 of 'Sordid Lives."'

"You're preachin' to the choir!" says Jordan with the plummy Tennessee drawl that transforms "this" into "thee-yus" and "hotel" into "ho-tay-uhl."

"At my age," says the actor, who's 53, "I loooove the glooory. But I waaaa-hont some buuhhks.

"I shot all my scenes in six days," he reports, "and I'm in drag. I'm in a different outfit every episode! And we had special effects, too. We had an angel come visit!"

Indeed. As the series begins on an April day in 1998, Brother Boy learns of the death of his cherished Tammy Wynette. He is inconsolable. His mascara runs. Then Tammy reassuringly appears in a vision (played by her real-life daughter, Georgette Jones).

"The production was really challenging for all the actors," Shores agrees. "There was no downtime."

"I only lost my temper once," Jordan says. "I said, 'I am not a government muuuule! You cannot work me like thee-yus!"'

Shores chuckles with him. "The actors were willing to go the distance for the piece and for me. And we had a good time."

"We laughed and laughed!" declares Jordan. "And Shreveport is just a cesspool of vi-i-ice! They make you walk through the casino just to get into the ho-tay-uhl. I'm not gonna say her name, but we had one cast member who MIGHT have a little gambling problem."

"She gambled her per diem every day," chimes in McClanahan, still sounding concerned. "She wasted her per diem!"

By Frazier Moore