'Broke's Jackie Has Qualities From Both Pauley Perrette and 'NCIS' Abby
High in the palm tree–dotted hills of Los Angeles at our TV Guide Magazine photo shoot, Pauley Perrette slides into the driver's seat of a vintage Mustang. The convertible is parked on a winding street teeming with — to the canine-loving actress' delight — people walking pets. "Hey, precious dogface dog!" she calls out to passing German shepherds and Pomeranians as their surprised handlers smile.
"They're like, 'Who is this crazy person?'" Perrette says, laughing. "This crazy person" soared to fame in 2003 on the megapopular procedural NCIS as Abby Sciuto, a brilliant and quirky forensic scientist partial to pigtails and, yes, a dog collar.
America's goth sweetheart left the show in 2018 after 15 years, and Perrette spent her time happily hanging out with her three rescue mutts and watching TV. A fave: The People's Court with Judge Marilyn Milian ("I'm a bazillion percent obsessed with her!"). The Alabama-raised actress considered retiring. But when work beckoned, she says, "I told God I would just take meetings."
Lucky for us, she was lured back to TV by producers Alex Herschlag (Will & Grace) and Jennie Snyder Urman (Jane the Virgin), creators of the family sitcom Broke. "I came from comedy. I wanted to get back to it," says Perrette, who has appeared on Frasier, The Drew Carey Show, and Christina Applegate's Jesse. It helps that her "diva" demands were also met: comfy shoes ("I've been wearing platforms for 16 years"), a quick commute, and a "clean" comedy that wouldn't make viewers uncomfortable.
She plays Jackie, a struggling single mom/bartender/handywoman raising a son, elementary schooler Sammy (Antonio Corbo, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), in the working-class L.A. suburb of Reseda. When her estranged sister, Elizabeth (Natasha Leggero, Another Period), and wealthy brother-in-law, Javier (Jaime Camil), lose their money, she reluctantly takes them in — along with his loyal assistant, Luis (Izzy Diaz, Snowfall), and a Chihuahua.
In many ways, Perrette can relate to Jackie: "I was a bartender in New York — that was my acting school, watching what people do and how they interact. Sociology is my jam. And I'm a tool freak!" She specifically requested that Jackie take her tools to work in a nursing home because, she says, "I've always loved older people — loved them — and I wanted to make a space where we could hire older actors."
Both actress and character prefer a wardrobe of Doc Martens, flannel shirts, and band T-shirts, but producers also incorporated more of Perrette's personality. Religion is important to her, so in one episode, Jackie, who's been struggling with her faith since her mom's death, is drawn back to church thanks to Sammy. "Using who Pauley is and adapting things to her made the show that much stronger," Herschlag says. "I'm hoping the people who love her from NCIS will love seeing her in a different light but also see some of Abby's tough qualities."
Jackie's hardheadedness comes out in sarcastic one-liners, many aimed at her sister. (Leggero based the Gucci-loving social climber partially on Dorit Kemsley from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.) "Jackie's mad and hurt that 10 years ago Lizzie left her alone with a baby. It's been hard. Their mother died, dad's in prison. She loves her sister, but…I don't know if you can get off that easy," Perrette says. Their attempts to be civil sometimes devolve into childish battles, including one at the bar where ice cubes go airborne.
The most earnest of the household is Mexican trust-funder Javier, cut off by his dad for reckless spending. (He bought a pyramid, but it was Mayan, not Egyptian: a bargain!) Fans of telenovela idol Camil as Jane the Virgin's narcissistic but lovable Rogelio de la Vega will again see subtitled Spanish-language dialogue — and one key commonality in the characters: "Javier doesn't wear lavender," Camil says, "but like Rogelio, he has a deep and honest connection with family."
Soon, Lizzie and Javier become more parental toward Sammy, there's a redecorating conflict (shocker), and Cinco de Mayo proves something very different to Javier and to bartender Jackie.
Clearly, Broke isn't just about being spent. "It's about relationships that are broken and how they get repaired," Herschlag says. "Jackie needs to have faith in people again. She's had to do everything by herself, and now there is a village to help."
Funnily enough, one of Perrette's NCIS villagers, costar Wilmer Valderrama, has a production company office near the Broke soundstage. "I ran into him, and I'm like, 'Wilmer!' It was so good to see him," Perrette enthuses, adding that she'd love to have former CBS castmates Brian Dietzen, Sean Murray, and Michael Weatherly ("One of the funniest human beings!") guest star.
The experience would no doubt be rewarding. "This show is hilarious, and it's fun and it's sweet," Perrette says. "I think people need a little happiness right now."
Broke, Series Premiere, Thursday, April 2, 9:30/8:30c, CBS