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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Katey Sagal lifts Rebel out of its Erin Brockovich shadow

Illustration for article titled Katey Sagal lifts Rebel out of its Erin Brockovich shadow
Photo: Temma Hankin/ABC

Shonda Rhimes may have departed ABC for the plush period-piece climes of Netflix, but her legacy and influence can still be felt on her old network, especially on Thursday nights. Stepping into the intimidating heels of Scandals Olivia Pope and How To Get Away With Murders Annalise Keating is the fearless Katey Sagal, taking on the role of Annie “Rebel” Flynn Ray Bello, not-so-loosely based on one Erin Brockovich (who also produces Rebel). If you’ve seen that 2000 Oscar-winning movie, the setup may seem familiar: An earnest, down-to-earth advocate takes on a multitude of underdog causes while her own personal life falters.

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Like Erin, Rebel has three kids and three husbands (for symmetry’s sake, the series matches up one kid per spouse; also, Erin is divorced from all three, while Rebel’s current marriage is in flux at the end of this pilot). She doesn’t have a law degree: A Rebel line directly taken from the movie when everyone keeps assuming she’s a lawyer: “I hate lawyers.” (A better line is when a bystander asks if Rebel is that famous lawyer and someone responds, “She’s not a lawyer. She’s just loud.”) What she does have is a ton of smarts and moxie that enable her to weasel her way into a multitude of David versus Goliath situations, always on the David side. Rebel works for an older, actual lawyer (Andy Garcia’s Cruz stands in for the mentor-ish role of the real-life Ed Masry), who is frustrated and overwhelmed by her efforts, yet seemingly helpless to combat such a dynamic force of nature.

If Rebel was played by nearly anyone but Katey Sagal, her saintlike, selfless stance would be almost too much to take. Fortunately the charisma of the TV vet, polished to perfection over decades on the small screen, instead makes the character of Rebel a likable draw. Unfortunately, because of the lead’s complicated family life, Rebel’s pilot has to offer a mega-load of exposition to place-set a not-insignificant number of characters: Rebel’s gynecologist son Nate (Kevin Zegers) is the product of the union with her first husband (Matthew Glave), a cop; kid number two Cassidy (Lex Scott Davis) is a daughter much like Rebel herself, which only makes her want to rebel and go work for her corporate lawyer dad Benji (James Lesure), whose sister Lana (Tamala Jones) is Rebel’s best friend; kid number three Ziggy (Runaways’ Ariela Barer) is a teenager just out of rehab that Rebel adopted 10 years ago with third husband Grady, who may be on his way out (John Corbett, refreshingly playing a cad for once).

Tamala Jones, Matthew Glave, Kevin Zegers, Katey Sagal, James Lesure in Rebel
From left: Tamala Jones, Matthew Glave, Kevin Zegers, Katey Sagal, James Lesure
Photo: Karen Ballard/ABC

There are so many cross-referenced familial ties that the episode actually makes a lot more sense on the second viewing, even though that means again enduring cringe-worthy dialogue like Rebel sarcastically admonishing her son: “I’m sorry my compassion for my fellow human beings caused you suffering,” or Grady telling Rebel that if she stayed home from work one day, “Who’d save the world?” While Rebel (like Erin Brockovich) is certainly an admirable figure, you can also see how all that constant crusading may not add up to the happiest of homelives (although there’s a great moment where Grady complains about how Rebel’s never around to make him dinner and all four female leads yell in unison, “Make you dinner!?!”)

But this is a pilot, and that’s why there are so few stellar ones right out of the gate: There’s a lot to set up, while also crafting a story interesting enough to make the viewer want to come back. Cassidy has an exemplary courtroom scene (much admired by her new colleague, Nashville’s Sam Palladio, allowed to use his native accent for once), Lana shows her value by being the earth to Rebel’s sky (taking down a perp to boot), and Garcia is excellent as usual. But it’s Sagal, ultimately, that we’ll return for. She was apparently so in demand by ABC (hey, they did all right with her Married… With Children co-star, Modern Familys Ed O’Neill) that she had her pick from a tower of scripts—and she chose well. Rebel puts her front and center, creating a fiercely determined yet compassionate and sympathetic character. The supporting cast and guest stars, featuring names like Battlestar Galacticas Mary McDonnell and Scandal’s Dan Bacatinsky, also bode well for the series’s future.

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Showrunner Krista Vernoff, after all, has been in the Shondaland lineup for years, most recently executive producing Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19. Rebel allows the topically appropriate plots to take place not only in the courtroom, but the familiar hospital setting, thanks to Nate’s career (and coworker Abigail Spencer, who shows up next week). Look for a multitude of impassioned speeches, lots of girlfriend bonding, and anvilish explanatory lines like, “We do what we can to tip the scales toward justice,” and ““I bring the CEOs of multimillion dollar corporations to their knees, and not in a good-time sexy way.If Rebel starts prioritizing showing over telling, though, Sagal may have found a new home worthy of her legendary talent.

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.