‘Rebel’ Is an ABC Drama That Could Use More Rule-Breaking: TV Review
Erin Brockovich's personal story is fundamentally compelling: that's why the film about her works so well. As Julia Roberts played in "Erin Brockovich," from 2000, she is a legal crusader, a lawyer who is less self-taught than intuitive. She is against the establishment on both sides of the courtroom and her gains come not from some kind of legal double talk, but from her humanity.
This is a difficult balance to hit on the screen. The first two episodes of "Rebel," a new ABC drama inspired by Brockovich's work, don't quite get there. Katey Sagal plays Annie "Rebel" Bello, who stands up for those who have fallen victim to corporate greed. At the start of the show in particular, it owns a medical company whose faulty heart valves, we are told, have ruined the health and lives of those unlucky enough to have them implanted.
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The show presents itself from its premise as a story in which people take over in power, but tends to stumble upon the most basic elaborations of its main idea. "I have nothing against companies, companies can do a lot of good," Rebel told a TV presenter in the first episode, referring to her pride in the American company that manufactured the COVID-19 vaccine. "I'm a proud American, Marta. I say everyone should make a living. Just don't poison people while you're doing it."
This invocation of perhaps the most formidable and colorful scientific ingenuity of the young century to claim that companies are not all bad feels coincidental, the result of a desire to avoid alienating anyone in the first place. That impulse reappears in the second installment of the series, where a possibly gnarled plot about allegations of racism and assault ultimately becomes the “everyone gets a trophy” ethos of young people today - an easy target and one the series does doesn't have to have much in mind. Trying to please everyone is a difficult thing to do when putting on a show about a person whose life work is to fight the establishment.
A performer with charm and seemingly innate relativity, Sagal does her best with the role, though Rebel tends to scurry across the map. The show gives her a backstory and set of traits - generous about a mistake, somewhat sloppy in love, obsessively protective of those she is loyal to - that don't consistently align with Sagal's laid-back personality or with Rebel's blurry relationship with her work . We see that Rebel's career is her life, but after two episodes it remains unclear what exactly she sees as her job, beyond the all-purpose fixation. (The show also suggests that Rebel's personality influences her work, but we don't see much evidence that the work is demanding and Rebel is tireless.) As if to help her explain herself, the show constructs great opponents: A A company that is so bad, for example, that even those “proud Americans” can oppose it, or a husband who is obviously a louse. This jerk complains about Rebel's passion for her job, yelling, "You care more about the news than coming home to cook me dinner!" Of course, he's played by John Corbett, the Sex and the City actor who stands in the way of a woman's quest to know herself like everyone else. And of course, his opposition to Rebels work overrides our lack of understanding of what exactly her work really is.
Aspects of "Rebel" suggest a promise: The war between Rebel and a corporate shark ex (James Lesure) over her daughter (Lex Scott Davis) could lead to a conversation about what Rebel's work really is and what it is for it means beyond truisms. Describing the virtue of her shark father's work, Rebel's daughter (Lex Scott Davis) declares: "Everyone is entitled to zealous representation [...], it is the constitutional premise of our entire judicial system." This is a notable exaggeration of the moral and necessity of the role corporate defenders must play, and suggests that Rebel's daughter is, in fact, not a major rebel at all.
If anyone has the ability to bring debate about a complicated network television workspace to the human level, it is showrunner Krista Vernoff, who over the past few years has been entrusted with Grey's Anatomy, the current standard-bearer for drama in the workplace. All of the plays are there to bring "Rebel" to a place of real interest - really engaging subjects, the inherent conflict of the legal profession, a complicated protagonist, and a showrunner who knows a little about writing such women. The show just needs to get better out of the way and show less risk aversion and more a rebellious heart.
"Rebel" debuts on ABC April 8th at 10pm.
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