'Friends With Better Lives': James Van Der Beek and Kevin Connolly, 'Friends' by any other name

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Right after one group of friends signs off, new friends will be introduced ... by a former writer-producer of "Friends," no less.

Immediately following the series finale of CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" Monday (Mar. 31), the network will debut the sitcom "Friends With Better Lives." The premise of longtime acquaintances in amusing situations -- mainly revolving around their differing relationship levels -- may seem familiar, but it's served up by a fresh ensemble cast merging established TV faces and relative newcomers.

Will (played by "Dawson's Creek" alum James Van Der Beek) is struggling to adjust after his recent divorce; Jules (actress-model Brooklyn Decker) is newly engaged to visibly amorous Lowell (Rick Donald); Kate (Zoe Lister-Jones, "Whitney") is a career-driven serial dater; and the married Bobby (Kevin Connolly, "Entourage") and Andi (Majandra Delfino, "Roswell") observe their friends' allegedly better lives somewhat enviously.

Gratified that sitcom-directing master James Burrows ("The Millers," "Will & Grace") guided the premiere, series creator and executive producer Dana Klein tells Zap2it the characters "met when they were all on more of an equal playing field. They were students, they were single and no one had a career yet. Now it is 12 years later, and all of them are at very different places in their lives ... and I've always been intrigued that people, myself included, so easily go to the place of thinking their friends' lives are better or easier.

"There's that quote, 'Happiness is wanting what you have,'" notes Klein, "but I think that in the day-to-day, many people fall into the trap of it being what you don't have instead. I thought it would be interesting to examine friendships through that lens. It's a grass-is-always-greener kind of thing, but with an undercurrent of love. These people are super-close and always there for each other."

Former Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue cover model Decker is making a big leap into a comedy filmed before a studio audience, after getting into acting via such movies as "Just Go With It" and "Battleship." She admits it doesn't hurt that her "Friends With Better Lives" alter ego is similar to her, being an ex-model and aspiring actress.

"Nowadays, people want to do television because it's as good as -- if not better than -- what we're seeing on the big screen," Decker reasons. "This is a new medium for me, especially multi-camera and in front of a live audience. It has its own challenges. You have to pause for laughter, which feels completely counter-intuitive, so being in an ensemble cast with people who have done this before helps me so much."

The wife of retired Grand Slam tennis singles champ Andy Roddick, Decker gets up close and personal with co-star Donald in the series right from the outset. "He works on 'Fox Sports Live,' so luckily, we're on the same lot," she says of her spouse. "When he would finish early, he'd come and hang out with the other [cast and crew members'] spouses."

Roddick's presence while Decker does her more romantic scenes isn't a problem, she maintains. "It's part of my job," she says, "and I'm lucky that I have a husband who completely gets that. I warned him, 'Look, when I'm wearing this outfit, close your eyes.' But he gets it, thank goodness."

Also currently making the movie sequel to HBO's "Entourage," Connolly is glad to get back to series work.

"Everything is so fresh, so new," he says. "The dynamics are really new. I went from such a testosterone-driven show to the exact opposite, because 'Friends With Better Lives' is run by the ladies. I imagine it's close to what being married feels like."

Connolly feels fortunate to have had experience with one of his new co-stars before production began. "James Van Der Beek and I did the movie 'Angus' together, so I've known him for 20 years," he reports. "Everybody here clicked real well real fast, though, and as far as I know, everybody is enjoying everybody else's company. I know I certainly do. As great as 'Entourage' was, I'm having an equally great experience on this show."

As much as she's liked making "Friends With Better Lives" overall (it completed filming its maiden round in November), Klein had an extra reason to be happy about what's slated as its last episode this season: Her husband, Mark Feuerstein of USA's "Royal Pains" (on which Decker appeared), guest stars in it as one of Kate's many dates.

Klein insists she isn't thinking about her show becoming a successor to "How I Met Your Mother" ... or even to "Friends," for that matter.

"I was there for the last three years," she says of the series that made Ross and Rachel household names, "so I can take very little credit for the brilliance of 'Friends,' but it was a wonderful opportunity. I learned so much.

"I feel like we lucked out with the casting here, too," Klein adds. "The chemistry is great. We auditioned hundreds of actors, and someone remarked to me that with our six, it doesn't feel like they just met each other. It really feels like they've known each other for a long time, and in real life, they hang out and are friends. I just feel very lucky."
Photo/Video credit: CBS