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'Boys' life agrees with impressive young actress

Jordana Spiro is heart of shrewd new TBS sitcom

(Patrick Ecclesine)

NEW YORK -- PJ Franklin is a 20-something gal who's one of the guys.

But not as a poor substitute for romance. Someone that appealing has no need to compromise.

Instead, the go-her-own-way heroine of the TBS sitcom "My Boys" is just respecting her druthers. For PJ the dependable joys of weekly poker games, pub hopping, sports as a hobby and career (she covers the Cubs for the Chicago Sun-Times), and abundant sassy banter soundly trump the pitfalls of dating. No wonder she prefers fraternal ties -- and not just figuratively (one of the guys is her older brother) -- to sorting out a love life's mysteries.

Meanwhile, her boys endorse her membership. She's the one girl they can be themselves around.

"My Boys," which premiered last month, is a shrewd look at what the genders have in common, and can learn from each other, when they let their guard down. The single-camera comedy , which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m., sports a fine cast, in particular, Jim Gaffigan as PJ's reined-in married brother. But the heart of the show is Jordana Spiro. As PJ, she is deliciously authentic, and irresistible.

Viewers may remember Spiro from "The Huntress," a USA drama in which she played the teenage daughter who teamed up with her widowed mom as bounty hunters. She has also had guest shots on such series as "CSI: NY," "Cold Case," and "JAG."

And those who saw the 2005 romantic comedy "Must Love Dogs" were charmed by Spiro in a tiny but indelible performance as John Cusack's ditzy date. On screen less than three minutes, when she airily dismisses the film "Doctor Zhivago" by saying "I didn't get it," her cluelessness speaks volumes. Spiro can bring substance even to a bubble-head, and do it in a flash.

She has much more to work with now as PJ, who (if a recent conversation proves anything) happens to be someone with whom she shares several qualities: the beaming smile; the plummy voice never far from a chuckle; and an eager curiosity.

She is wearing a black sweater and black jeans, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Maybe a little more girly than PJ; maybe not.

But there are also distinct differences.

"PJ could probably drink me under the table," says Spiro. "Not that I don't enjoy a few libations every once in a while. But she would slam me down.

"And prior to 'My Boys,' I had never gotten too involved in the world of sports: The first baseball game I went to, I asked what time the show started."

Not that she wasn't interested before, she hastens to add. It just wasn't something she was raised with.

Spiro grew up in Manhattan, the middle of five kids whose parents were art dealers. They encouraged her interest in acting with one caveat: that she never forget it's a business.

So she has made it her business to use acting as a path for exploration.

"I'm one of those people who's interested in everything and have a difficult time choosing," says Spiro, "so I wanted a career that was project-oriented, where I could learn a whole new set of things, and then move on and learn another set of things."

After high school, she moved to Los Angeles and soon landed a guest shot on Marie Osmond's short-lived ABC sitcom, "Maybe This Time," where immediately she learned a useful lesson.

"The director pulled me aside at one point and said, 'Right now you're this way, and I'd like you to be that way.' Then the producer pulled me aside and said, 'Could you do it more this way and less that way?' They were completely in conflict!

"So I decided to just do it the same as before. And they both loved it."

Another project she fondly recalls is "From Dusk Till Dawn 3."

"Nobody really knows there was even a '2,' " she says with a chuckle. "But for me it was great, because I got to go to South Africa, and I've always been interested in traveling."

In the film, set in Mexico a hundred years ago, "I got to play a girl who was posing as a boy who wanted to be an outlaw," she explains, "and that was fun. I was fixed on the idea that my character would chew tobacco. They were saying you could just take black Twizzlers and stick 'em in your mouth. But I would say, 'Tish, tosh, I'm [a method actor]. If my character chews tobacco, I chew tobacco!' "

Now, as PJ, she has a whole new set of skills to master. She recounts an introductory chat with "My Boys" creator Betsy Thomas, who offered her some tips on preparing for the role.

"She said, 'You need to learn how to play poker, you need to start watching as much baseball as you can, and you need to come out and drink with us.' I said, 'This is the best job I've ever had in my life! If we can also fit in saving the world, I'm gold!' "

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