Rebellious women with causes are Krista Vernoff’s area of expertise.
As the showrunner of two of ABC’s most high-profile dramas, her juicy characters’ ends always justify their means. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy consistently break rules to save their patients’ lives. The firefighters on Station 19, led by Andy Herrera (Jaina Lee Ortiz), regularly ignore protocols to rescue people from burning buildings.
Now Vernoff turns her eye to Annie “Rebel” Bello (Katey Sagal), a feisty and fiery crusader against corporate greed and injustice. Rebel, which joins ABC’s successful Thursday line-up, represents the first time Vernoff—who has years of writing and producing other people’s shows—has launched her own series.
Based on Erin Brockovich, Rebel is Vernoff’s favorite type of female character: a complex heroine juggling an extremely messy personal life. Rebel has “three different kids with three different husbands,” and is about to celebrate her tenth anniversary with Grady (John Corbett, winning over viewers with his trademark lackadaisical charm). Together, they adopted Ziggy (Ariela Barer) when she was six years old. Now, Ziggy is a sassy adolescent just out of rehab. Rebel was married to Tommy (Matthew Glave) and they had Nate (Kevin Zegers), now a gynecologist with a nasty habit of ghosting women he dates. She was also married to Benji (James Lesure), a hotshot attorney who Rebel divorced because he took a job with corporate law. Benji and Rebel’s daughter, Cassidy (Lex Scott Davis), is also a lawyer who gets roped in to taking on all her mom’s pro bono cases. Add in Rebel’s investigator and friend Lana (Tamala Jones) who also happens to be Benji’s brother and Cruz (Andy Garcia), the husband of her dead best friend, and you have got yourselves a show.
The series is poised to be just the right mix of overarching season-long plot and intriguing case of the week. To start, Rebel is representing a group of people who received a faulty heart valve that is making them sick. They are wrecked by migraines and autoimmune deficiencies. Helen (Mary McDonnell), weak and debilitated from her heart valve, has gathered a Facebook group of over 3,000 members all of whom have suffered since receiving Stonemore Medical’s device. The problem is Rebel can’t get anyone to take on her class action suit, especially not Cruz who is still grieving the loss of his wife and not wanting to go through further pain. On the opposite side, Adam Arkin is well cast as the nefarious head of Stonemore Medical who puts profits over patients.
In the first two episodes made available for review, Rebel also helps a woman who stabbed her abusive boyfriend, and gives aid to a college professor (Shondaland favorite Dan Bucatinsky) being harassed by his racist, homophobic student. Rebel isn’t a woman who takes no for an answer, and she’s got a lawyer and a doctor at her disposal. It doesn’t matter that her son delivers babies all day; of course he should open up a study about defective heart valves.
The show pulses with the sheer force of Sagal’s will. She’s got the stride and the fearless attitude that makes Rebel a fascinating protagonist. (Extra points for the way even her hair bounces with righteous determination). During Sagal’s long career she has rather effortlessly moved between comedy and drama, starting on Married with Children, going on to terrify many as matriarch Gemma on Sons of Anarchy, and currently recurring on The Conners as Dan’s girlfriend Louise. That deft mix of comedy and drama is on full display in Rebel. “I’m relentless. I’m tireless. And quite frankly I’m exhausting,” she tells one opponent.
But, the show gets a mandatory deduction for referencing the pandemic. “I mean I’m just as grateful for the vaccine as everyone else,” Rebel says in the pilot. Can we just put a moratorium on that nonsense? I’m giving every TV showrunner permission to set their series in a world where the pandemic doesn’t exist. If you are going to have your characters roam around maskless, go to restaurants, have parties, work in offices, and do all the other things we enjoyed without worry or concern in the Before Times, then simply don’t make the pandemic part of your fictional world. Please. I beg of you.
What truly makes Rebel tick is that it’s not looking away from the wreckage Rebel leaves in her crusading wake. “My mother never learned to play the violin so she plays humans instead,” Cassidy says before lamenting on how her mother lectured everyone about the food coloring used in her birthday cake when she was a child. Nate says he was raised by “nannies and mannies on motorcycles.” Grady feels neglected that his wife works all the time. “You care more about getting on the news than getting home to cook me dinner,” he says in a comment than all the women on the show rightfully mock. Fighting for justice comes at a price that Rebel is more than willing to explore.
Rebel has all the ingredients to make a terrific show. A strong ensemble. Quick witted dialogue. Interesting cases. Romantic entanglements. Interpersonal strife. A force to be reckoned with lead. She’s a rebel with a cause and she’s a delight to watch.
Rebel premieres Thursday, April 8th on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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