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Mom Virginia Madsen lays down the law in 'Scoundrels'

In youth-obsessed Hollywood, you rarely hear an actress say, "You know, what I'd really like to do is play a mom."

As it turns out, though, that was one of Virginia Madsen's primary reasons for signing on for "Scoundrels," the promising ABC dramedy premiering Sunday.

Adapted from the New Zealand TV hit "Outrageous Fortune," the series stars the Oscar-nominated actress ("Sideways") as Cheryl West, a Palm Springs, Calif., wife and mom who finds her family of small-time criminals turned upside down when hubby Wolfgang "Wolf" West (David James Elliott) gets sent to prison for a longer-than-anticipated stretch by a judge seeking re-election.

At first, Cheryl's chief assignment while Wolf is away is to hold down the fort, managing the family's pawnshop - where, unknown to her, a good percentage of the stock is hot - and keeping the kids in line: beautiful but ditsy model wannabe Heather (Leven Rambin), aspiring screenwriter (and accomplished blackmailer) Hope (Vanessa Marano) and identical twin sons, newly minted attorney Logan and deadbeat slacker Cal (Patrick Flueger in a memorable dual role).

It's not long before circumstances place one of her kids in harm's way, forcing Cheryl to decide the family is going to clean up its act - even if that puts her at odds with Wolf, who is trying to continue running the family business from the clink.

 

Mom's work is never done

 

A canny mix of comedy and drama, the show boasts a showpiece role for Madsen, who had been searching in vain for a mom role that was well written and steered clear of cliches.

"I just feel that I am so much more comfortable, and I actually have better roles at this age than when I was an ingenue," says Madsen, 48. " is a huge part of my life that I do well and not well, and to be able to play with that at work is just a dream for me.

"But it's hard to find a mom role that's real. They're so often stereotyped, and this one had sort of everything, including comedy, which I have been studying for the past three or four years, so that was also a bonus for me - knowing that I could learn so much at work."

Certainly the last place the actress expected to find a role like this was on network television, since her experience on the 2006-07 CBS caper dramedy "Smith," in which she played the wife of Ray Liotta's professional thief, was both short-lived and creatively unsatisfying.

"I was the mom, but I was continually the pancake maker," she says, sighing. "I kept thinking, 'Where's my gun?' Every week, I would read the script and go, 'Auugh, I'm in the kitchen again!' It just wasn't real, and I never got to do any cool stuff. . . . I hardly ever got any scenes with Ray."

Enter the three "Scoundrels" executive producers: Francie Calfo, who had held the show as a passion project for three years, and former "Nip/Tuck" scribes Lyn Greene and Richard Levine, the team Calfo hired to bring the show to life. After Madsen read the script, the three took her to lunch and dazzled her with their commitment.

"As a parent, I just connected with this woman in the original that I thought was really interesting," Calfo says. "And for me, a professional woman with three children, to make that kind of connection to a woman like Cheryl West, I thought immediately said something. So I scrambled and begged and bargained and prayed that I could get on that project, and I finally did; then, I found Richard and Lyn to come write it for me."

Levine, who has known Greene since their teen years and worked with her extensively, says they both were attracted immediately to the complexity of this unusual but very charismatic family.

"We love doing something that is like life, in that it can be funny or also serious and deep. This property affords a very wonderful range, and we are excited about it," he says.

 

A scene-stealing thief

 

Although Madsen and her TV kids shine in the series, it's Elliott who may startle viewers the most with his funny, scary, uninhibited bad-boy performance that is light-years away from his buttoned-up work on "JAG."

"There is tremendous chemistry between me and David, like fireworks going off on the set," Madsen says, laughing. "I worry almost that I am going to gush about David too much and there will be rumors, because I know he is a happily married man, and I'm not that kind of girl, but I really do blush when he walks on.

"He's amazing, just so masculine. We have seen a lot of boys with clean chests and six-packs on TV, but David is a man, and his energy is manly. He holds himself like a grown-up, and he doesn't preen in front of the mirror. He just explodes onto the stage and steals every scene, and I gladly allow him to do it."

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