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John Shea, star of "WIOU," is on the phone with an old friend who stopped watching the CBS newsroom drama after a shocked, horrified look at the dismal pilot episode.

"What didn't you like about it?" Shea asks, amused. The old friend, embarrassed, mumbles something about a drama trying to take on serious issues with one-dimensional, comic characters."We didn't want to be like every other sort of serious, ensemble drama with a bunch of well-meaning yuppies standing around in expensive suits," he said.

"In the beginning, we really hadn't found the tone. I think now, eight shows in, we've found it. There's an edge of satire, black comedy, an edge that's hard to capture. I think it's better now. . . . Some of the humor is less broad and we're creating characters, not characterizations."

Shea, a stage actor and an Emmy Award-winner for his work in the "Baby M" TV movie, had wrapped the show's season finale a day earlier. After a month on hiatus, a special "WIOU" airs Monday. The series then returns to its Wednesday slot.

"There are a lot of surprises in store for anybody who's been following `WIOU,"' he said. "We tried to just keep throwing curves at the audience so they could never figure out what would happen."

"WIOU" was Shea's first try at a television series, despite his work in TV movies such as "Baby M," "Small Sacrifices," "The Impossible Spy," and the miniseries "Kennedy." He was ready for it.

"I'd lived in New York for the last 15 years. I'd done 20 plays and 20 films," he said. "After about 10 years of actively doing that, I just felt that I was sort of orbiting the same place."

He felt underemployed, even though he'd work on one or two projects a year.

"I would still only work six months a year. I just felt - frustrated," he said.

The death of his younger brother was shattering, and his grief was overwhelming. After a half-year of mourning and reflection, "I realized that I had to work more and right now to be really happy."

He started reading series pilots and "WIOU" popped out of the pack. He liked the idea of the show, the ensemble format and his character.

And he's even learned to enjoy the challenge that series TV poses for an actor.

"It's not about a single frame or a single shot," he said. "It's an 18-hour film. One story leads to another story. The characters are constantly growing and changing. What you learn in one episode you bring to the next."

It's also given him a chance to work behind the camera. "In the future, I will be directing some of these episodes," he said. "That, for me, is a whole new area for me to grow into."

And it has given him a new appreciation for the twisted weirdness of the television ratings game. ("In theater, you do not hope for the play across the street to fail," he said.)

"All my life I just concerned myself with the show part of it and not the biz part," he said. "I never cared about it, never took it seriously and never took LA seriously. And, I think, as a consequence it never took me seriously. ...

"It's been an eye-opener."