Happiness is a Warm TV

Millbrook High and ECU grad loves the '70s vibe and strong messages of her new TV drama

Jennifer Bartels as Diana in the new Paramount series "American Woman."
Jennifer Bartels as Diana in the new Paramount series "American Woman." Paramount

Actress Jennifer Bartels, the Millbrook High grad perhaps best known for comedic parts, is moving back to her acting roots with her role in the new Paramount Network series “American Woman,” debuting Thursday, June 7, at 10 p.m.

The half-hour dramedy, which also stars Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari, follows three friends in 1970s Beverly Hills as they navigate broken marriages, shaky romances and career struggles. It's a mostly serious show, but with enough light moments to keep it out of downer territory.

Bartels, whose most recent major TV credits include the ABC sitcom "Broken" and the truTV sketch comedy show "Friends of the People," is happy to get back to drama, which she considers a major part of her background. The East Carolina graduate studied the Meisner acting technique and left ECU with a BFA in Theater Arts.

“What’s wonderful about that specific type of acting technique is that it really parlays well into comedy and into drama,” Bartels said, calling from Los Angeles.

Bartels moved to New York after graduating from ECU and joined the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv and sketch comedy group that originally formed in Chicago.

“I was able to use my tools as a theatrical actor, but the tools were being applied to my ‘funny,’” she said. “I guess sometimes people think, ‘Oh, and then she tried drama.’ No, I’ve done theater and I’ve done a lot of drama and more serious roles throughout my life, but the ones that seem to have a little more commercial support behind them were my comedic efforts. So this is nice to sort of go back to my roots.”

The "American Woman" part became the best of both worlds for Bartels. Her character, Diana, starts out fairly staid, but by the end of the season she has loosened up quite a bit. Bartels attributes part of that progression to the writers getting to know her and learning more about her skills.

“In time they started to use my comedic capabilities and use the fact that as an actor, I’m really not afraid to do much of anything,” she said. “You see a progression in all the characters, but with Diana especially, you see the progression. In the pilot I’m a very buttoned-up, kind of 'independent but struggling to find her voice as a working woman,’ and then by the end of the series you’re like ‘Wow!’ — it was even surprising for me as an actor to read through it. I was like ‘OK. Alright. Here we go.’ ”

Issues that transcend time

In “American Woman,” Bartels plays a close friend of Silverstone’s character, Bonnie, a well-kept housewife and mother who finds herself separated — and broke — when her cheating husband is busted for fraud. Bartels’ Diana, and Suvari’s character, Kathleen, lend support to Bonnie, but each have strong storylines of their own. Diana is an independent career woman struggling to move up in the Old Boys Club environment. Kathleen is a wealthy businesswoman backing the career of her boyfriend, a closeted gay casting agent.

(L-R): Mena Suvari, Alicia Silverstone and Jennifer Bartels in the Paramount Network series "American Woman." Paramount Network

Bartels describes "American Woman" as being “about the essence of female friendship.” It's based on the true story of the childhood of former child actress Kyle Richards, whose mother raised her and her sister Kim (also a child actress) after their parents divorced. (Paramount, incidentally, has upped its programming game since rebranding from Spike earlier this year. Later this month they'll debut their original series "Yellowstone," starring Kevin Costner as Montana cattle rancher John Dutton.)

Bartels particularly hopes that Diana’s struggles speak to modern day women and that the show can offer some inspiration.

“I think there are a lot of things explored within this show, with social issues and female issues, that seem ahead of the time with those three characters,” she said. “But then you look at us currently and there are a lot of issues that these characters are going through that we’re still facing today.

“I think a lot of it transcends time when it comes to issues with females and social equality.”

That '70s vibe

For viewers, one of the most satisfying aspects of “American Woman” will be the richness of the detailed 1970s sets and costumes. Becoming immersed in the 1970s vibe was a treat for Bartels, as well.

Jennifer Bartels as Diana in the Paramount Network series "American Woman." Paramount Network

“It was amazing,” she said of the costuming. “We got to wear all these beautiful designers. It’s like ‘Sex and the City’ but in the ‘70s, because clothes were so much of a character in “Sex and the City.” We did the same with this show, and that’s fun for the viewer.

“I feel like the ‘70s were such a specific time … just this vibe that was so wonderful to fall into,” she said. “And the costumes helped. They really spent so much love and time on vintage clothes. The clothes we are wearing are not mock-ups. Mena wore a dress that Twiggy wore. I wore bellbottoms that had no stretch in them, so they hurt all my body — but that’s what you wore! To really play it true to these women in the ‘70s, you had to kind of redefine and understand where they were coming from and what it was to be a woman in the ‘70s.”

Raleigh is still home

Bartels still gets home to see family at least three or four times a year, she said. Her mom, dad, sister and brother all still live here, and her parents fly out to Los Angeles at least once a year to spend time with her there.

When in Raleigh, she keeps things pretty low-key.

“I try to get a good workout in while I’m here because I like to eat and I like the South, and the food is great," she said. "So I try to do either a run with my family along the Greenway or go to Cameron Village and make a morning out of it. I’ll sneak away and just get some 'me in Raleigh’ time. … I just like to hang with my family and have a glass of wine and listen to music and make poor food choices.”

Even though she's lived since college either in New York or LA, Bartels still feels a strong connection to the area and to the people who have always supported her. When her "Friends of the People" show debuted in 2015, her family and friends threw a viewing party for her at the Fox & Hound pub at North Hills.

“I’m proud to be from North Carolina and Raleigh," she said. "It has always been a place that has supported me, from Millbrook High School where I did theater and got my start with Mrs. Prater, and then East Carolina. It’s so crazy because I’m getting all these messages now from people who I’m still very close with. I have a very close friendship circle in North Carolina and Raleigh still, and it’s just nice to represent that place. It’s really special to me.”

Brooke Cain: 919-829-4579, bcain@newsobserver.com, @warmtv, @brookecain

Watch 'American Woman'

"American Woman" premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday, June 7, on Paramount Network (formerly Spike).

Locally you can find Paramount on channels 40 and 116 on Spectrum (Time Warner cable); channels 145 and 1145 on AT&T U-verse; channel 341 on Google Fiber TV; channel 241 on DISH; and channel 241 on DirecTV.