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ABC's Rebel manages to be entertaining even though it tells you what it's thinking and feeling to an exhausting degree

  • "Very few people have ever called Erin Brockovich — her manner, her personal affect, her crusading approach — 'subtle.' Trust me. I googled," says Daniel Fienberg. "Nobody is likely to call Rebel, a new ABC drama 'inspired by the life of Erin Brockovich today,' subtle either. Krista Vernoff's series tells you what it's thinking and feeling to an exhausting degree, barks out its iconoclastic ideology at every turn and still somehow ends up feeling like an entertaining broadcast TV throwback. Credit there goes to Vernoff's smart structuring of the story and an outrageously good cast led by Katey Sagal." He adds: "This is a pure star vehicle for Sagal, so it's almost hard to believe the sheer number of actors who might normally be second or third on the call-sheet who are happy to come in, nail a scene or two and leave...No matter your taste or generation of TV viewership, Rebel's bound to have least one actor you already love from a previous show, and that's all part of the show's main secret: It's called Rebel and it's about a woman everybody says is a rebel, but it's also a very broad-skewing show about a very famous woman whose life was previous adapted as an Oscar-winning blockbuster film. Aesthetically and narratively, it's about as rebellious as a chocolate chip cookie and that's probably a reasonable thing for a broadcast network to be making in 2021."


    • Katey Sagal does her best with a role for a show that tends to skitter all over the map: "The show gives her a backstory and a set of traits — generous to a fault, somewhat careless in love, obsessively protective of those to whom she’s loyal — that don’t consistently jibe with Sagal’s laid-back persona, or with Rebel’s hazy relationship with her work," says Daniel D'Addario. "We see that Rebel’s career is her life but are left after two episodes unclear of what exactly she sees as her remit, beyond all-purpose fixing. (The show also suggests that Rebel’s personality informs her work, but we don’t see much evidence of that beyond that the work is demanding and Rebel is indefatigable.) As if to give her a hand in explaining herself, the show constructs big opponents: A corporation so bad, for instance, that even those who are 'proud Americans' can oppose it, or a husband who is self-evidently a louse."
    • Rebel wastes its talent and is too lacking in subtlety: "To be fair, modern network TV has an increasingly desperate habit of overreaching in pilot episodes," says Brian Tallerico. "It makes sense in an era of increasing choices through the prominence of streaming services, that network TV boardrooms are more desperate than ever to grab viewers quickly. But the righteous screenwriting here has all the depth of a tweet, lacking any real character detail or complexity. Everyone is good or bad, everything is black or white, all conflicts are obvious, all sides are easy to take. At one point early in episode two, someone has the nerve to ask, 'Did you read that on a tea bag?' I may or may not have yelled something at the screen about the whole show being written on a tea bag."
    • Sagal is really the only person who could've starred in Rebel: "If Rebel was played by nearly anyone but Katey Sagal, her saintlike, selfless stance would be almost too much to take," says Gwen Ihnat. "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)."
    • If Rebel weren’t based on a real person, she’d come off as a silly fictional professional with a job that only exists on TV: "As it is, this badass version of the character often feels like wish fulfillment for the real Brockovich (an executive producer), whose current life cannot possibly be this eventful," says Josh Bell. "The supporting characters are a bit more grounded, but most of the other actors get very little breathing room around Sagal’s outsize presence. Only (Andy) Garcia makes a real impression, bringing some seriousness to the heavy emotional burdens that his character is saddled with."
    • Rebel takes the plot of the film Erin Brockovich and makes it boring: "In Rebel, Sagal is trying to animate a character whose bellicosity and smug populism obliterate everything around her, including plot, characterization, and credibility," says Glenn Garvin, adding: "If the concept of a belligerently trashy blue-collar paralegal substituting emotion for evidence as she attacks a purportedly murderous corporation sounds familiar, keep an eye out as Rebel's credits roll for an amazing coincidence: Erin Brockovich as executive producer! If you change those heart valves for contaminated water, Rebel's plot is a virtual clone of the 2000 film about the real-life paralegal Brockovich. That one at least had an engaging story, even if it was almost entirely fiction. Rebel is merely a boorish bore."
    • Katey Sagal had to learn to play a different kind of "hard woman" for Rebel: “She is incensed by the thought that somebody is getting screwed over and that nobody’s seeing it or nobody’s talking about it or nobody’s standing up and doing something,” Sagal says. “For my own backstory for Rebel, which I made up for myself, this is a person that probably struggled with a lot of injustice in her own life and she got to the point of, ‘That’s not going to happen again.’ So she really has that voice for people who don’t feel they have one.”

    TOPICS: Rebel, ABC, Katey Sagal, Krista Vernoff