Premiering tonight, the new ABC drama Rebel centers on a legal advocate (but not lawyer) named Annie "Rebel" Bello, who takes a fearless, full-speed-ahead approach to seeking justice for her clients. Created by Grey's Anatomy's Krista Vernoff, the series is based on the life and career of the famed Erin Brockovich, Brockovich herself serving as an executive producer on the show. And in the show's lead role as Annie "Rebel" Bello? None other than veteran TV star Katey Sagal, in just the kind of solo spotlight that she's deserved for a very long time.
Sagal began her career not as an actress but as a backup singer, working with the likes of Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons. She was also a prominent member of Bette Midler's backup group the Harlettes. Sagal has found her way to sing in quite a few of her projects, and anyone who's seen her sing knows what a great instrument she has.
Her big TV break came with the sitcom Married… with Children. The Fox network was in its infancy in the late '80s when itdebuted the purposefully edgy and crude family comedy featuring a beaten-down, grumpy malcontent named Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) as the show's lead, and Sagal playing his wife, the red-bouffant-wigged Peg. Married… with Children wasn't the finest of fine comedy, but the show was exactly what Fox needed: an alternative to the network sitcom. Sagal was mostly there to hurl insults at Al and complain that he never wanted to have sex, but within those rather narrow comedic parameters, Sagal carved out a character who, through longevity and personality, became an icon in her own way.
After Married completed its eleven-season run, Sagal's next big role would keep her in the Fox family as Sagal provided the voice of Leela, the one-eyed alien pilot on Matt Groening's animated series Futurama. Leela was second-billed among the cast (thanks a lot, Fry), but her presence was essential, and it gave Sagal another long-running show on which to show her stuff. While Futurama was still going, Sagal was cast as the wife and mother on another TV sitcom, ABC's 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. The show was enough of a hit to make it to its second season, but the unexpected and tragic death of series star John Ritter threw everyone for a loop. The show was re-tooled around Sagal's now-widowed character, adding James Garner and David Spade to the cast as her father and nephew, respectively. This was Sagal's first time leading a TV series by herself, alhough Ritter's shadow stayed with the show, and it only lasted another season and a half without him.
Perhaps Sagal's most acclaimed performance came not in a comedy but in a pivot to drama. The 2008 FX series Sons of Anarchy centered around a Northern California motorcycle gang, and in particular the Hamlet-esque strife between the club's president, Clay (Ron Perlman), and its young upstart, and Clay's stepson, Jax (Charlie Hunnam). In between these two men, who were the leads of the show, was Katey Sagal, playing Gemma, Clay's "old lady," to use the parlance of the show, and Jax's mother. Gemma was a tough woman who could be shockingly ruthless when it came to protecting her son and her man. While Hunnam and Perlman earned their fair share of praise for the show, it was Sagal who quickly beacme the show's standout performer. Her Madea-in-a-leather-jacket vibe gave the show an undeniable spark, and watching this former sitcom queen play such a fearsome woman was a total thrill. She was rewarded with a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a TV Drama for her trouble in 2011, but her performance only made us long for a show where she hefslef was the central character.
That show may just be Rebel. Anybody who's seen the 2000 film Erin Brockovich knows what primo material Brockovich is for an actress. After all, Julia Roberts rode it all the way to an Oscar win for Best Actress. In both real life and fiction, Brockovich is a brassy crusader who seems to give a hard time to just about everybody in her life, yet always be on the righteous side of her legal battles.It's hard to imagine a role better suited to Katey Sagal as she finally takes her rightful place center stage.
Rebel premieres on ABC April 8th at 10:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.