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'JESSE' HAS ITS SHARE OF SWEET MOMENTS, BUT DON'T EXPECT BIG BUFFALO BOOSTS

Hope you haven't been hitting the local bars to look for Christina Applegate, the star of "Jesse" (8:30 tonight, Channel 2).

She had planned to visit Western New York with the show's creator-producer, Ira Ungerleider, sometime this month.

But she has been busier than a woman who has a 9-year-old, a full-time job as a barmaid and dreams of taking nursing school courses.

In other words, she has been busier than Jesse Warner, the lead character in this sweet sitcom set in a fictional Bavarian bar in our fair city.

"We sent the second unit up there to shoot some footage but I haven't been able to get there myself," Ungerleider said in a telephone interview late last week. "It's been really hectic. I'd really like to go as soon as I get a free weekend. There isn't any concrete plan to visit, just a desire."

The second unit filmed the Polish Villa II on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga and inserted it into the show's opening. The restaurant, which was recommended to the producers of "Jesse" by the Convention and Visitors Bureau, is throwing a "Jesse" party at 7:30 tonight. The restaurant has also named its new lounge, Jesse's Lounge" in honor of the show.

But don't expect Buffalo to be prominently mentioned in the series. There's one weather joke and Jesse's son wears a Bills jersey (of former linebacker Bryce Paup), but otherwise this series could be set in Anywhere, USA.

Though it's from the producers of "Friends" and has the coveted time slot after the NBC hit, "Jesse" is as different from that series about five single pals in Manhattan as Buffalo is from New York City.

Applegate's character is surrounded by men -- her sexy neighbor Diego (Bruno Campos); her gruff, boisterous father, John (George Dzundza); her speechless older brother, John Jr. (John Lehr); her 9 year-old son, Little John (Eric Lloyd), and her inventive younger brother, Darren (David DeLuise).

Jesse, 26, is constantly trying to balance her home life and unbalanced family members with the possibility of a love life. She was a very young mother.

"It's supposed to be that she got pregnant senior year of high school with her high school boyfriend and then they got married," Ungerleider explained this summer.

The pregnancy story line aside, the series has parallels to Ungerleider's family in New Jersey.

"The caretaker personality, which was translated into Jesse's character, that was me," he said. "The one who mediates all the arguments, the one everyone comes to for advice, the kind of ambassador of goodwill. Maybe it's just being the middle child, it was a role I put myself into get attention.

"And I have an older brother who really just doesn't participate at all, much to my parents' chagrin. And he hardly speaks.

"My father draws a fairly hard line. He was fairly strict and fairly conservative. So that's certainly a place I drew upon. And my older brother is the most peaceful, serene, Zen-like person in the world, and that's kind of where I got Junior from. And I have a little sister who's a little like Darren."

As he readies Episode 7 this week, Ungerleider says things have been going quite well with the first six episodes as Jesse starts dating Diego.

"Things start to heat up with Diego, but there is always conflict. Jesse is always torn between her family and Diego, and just as things are going real well with Diego, Jesse's ex-husband (Michael Weatherly of last year's short-lived Fox series "Significant Others") comes back to town and it creates a love triangle between the three of them." The ex-hubby visits in an episode that airs around Halloween.

Ungerleider is hoping to keep John Jr. speechless for a while: "I'm hoping that he doesn't speak until the end of the year."

The talk in network circles is that this series is an odd choice to couple with the more risque "Friends."

When Applegate visited "The Tonight Show" on Monday, Jay Leno thanked her for not playing another single woman in the media or advertising. There are enough shows like that on NBC.

"Jesse" is certainly different.

"It's not 'Friends,' " concedes Ungerleider, who was a writer on that series. "It's blue-collar, it's family. But there's a lot of light, sexy fun, which 'Friends' has. It's sort of like 'Friends' meets 'All in the Family.' "

After six episodes, he says the spirit of the pilot remains.

"It's still very family-oriented, still very emotionally based. But there's also a lot of jokes, and the characters have become richer and are getting more depth as we have more time to explore all their sides and stuff."

I found Applegate -- who has some of the looks and mannerisms of Jennifer Aniston of "Friends" -- the primary appeal of the pilot. It has its share of sweet moments -- especially when her silent brother advises her, without saying a word, to follow her heart.

The network sent a tape of an episode that will air in two weeks in which Jesse and Diego's attempt to find time for romance is thwarted by her son's throwing up at home. That episode is even less funny than the pilot.

Nationally, the reviews have been mixed. "Jesse" has received some positive notices. But it also has been hammered by critics who suggest that it's as lame as "Union Square," last year's disaster after "Friends."

"I always expect some people to like it and some not to like it," says Ungerleider. "In every show I've worked on that's been the case. I've never seen a show that everybody likes it. But I think you really have to watch two or three before you get a feel for it. I don't think 20 minutes is enough to really get a flavor for it."

As far as getting a flavor of Buffalo, Ungerleider expects more sports references (Jesse's dad wears a Sabres jersey in the third episode) than climate jokes.

"There are just a few here and there. We're trying not to joke about the weather," he said.

Ungerleider set the series here because he has an aunt from here (Molly Moskowitz) and cousins from Western New York and has fond memories of visits here.

"I haven't talked to Aunt Molly yet," said Ungerleider. "I owe her a phone call."

He has heard from only one Western New Yorker so far -- Charlie the Butcher.

"We're waiting for more phone calls and letters," said Ungerleider, sounding as if he expects to be Buffalo's goodwill ambassador now.

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