Katey Sagal is predictably brilliant in Rebel, but she’s headlining a show that seems to fight her talents at every turn.
This recap of Rebel season 1, episode 1, “Pilot”, contains spoilers.
Katey Sagal never seems to get the credit she deserves for being a veteran powerhouse of the small screen, but hopefully, an upside of ABC’s Rebel, a new legal-cum-family drama in which she plays Annie Flynn Ray Bello, who is based not particularly loosely on the show’s producer Erin Brockovich, will be that she gets to make a point about how great she is. You’ll recognize the setup of the show around her – an impassioned advocate takes on all kinds of important causes to the ongoing detriment of her personal life – and probably wince at some of the woefully heavy-handed dialogue she and her co-stars are forced to read, but even amongst all that, Sagal stands out. She’s so watchable she makes the show watchable, too, even if it’s only just.
Annie, dubbed “Rebel” for obvious reasons, has a complicated personal life that burdens the Rebel pilot with enough exposition to fill a courtroom. Let’s try and lay it all out for simplicity’s sake: Rebel works for a mentor lawyer figure, Cruz (Andy Garcia), who is the widowed husband of her late friend, but she’s not a lawyer herself. (“She’s just loud,” someone says of her at one point, accurately.) Rebel’s daughter Cassidy (Lex Scott Davis) is a lawyer though, as is her father and one of Rebel’s ex-husbands, Benji (James Lesure), but their relationship soured since he defends the corporations she fights against. Nevertheless, Rebel maintains a close personal and sort-of professional relationship with Benji’s sister, Lana (Tamala Jones). Rebel’s first husband was a cop named Tommy (Matthew Glave) who is always on-hand to spring her from jail when she’s arrested for protesting or turn up at just the right time to uncover some damning evidence on someone Rebel and co. are trying to take down, and together they have a son, gynecologist Nate (Kevin Zegers). The third and current partner, at least for most of Rebel episode 1, is Grady (John Corbett), with whom Rebel has an adopted teenage daughter, Ziggy (almost unrecognizable as Runaways’ Ariela Barer), who is fresh out of rehab.
You can see the problem. The Rebel pilot can’t quite decide if it wants to tell the audience all about these relationships or just dump them in the middle of the drama and leave them to parse things themselves, so there’s either not enough explanation or far too much, and most of the dialogue is either flat and utilitarian or hilariously on-the-nose. Pretty soon, though, we get the idea. Rebel is fundamentally a good person, and her heart is in the right place, but her endless crusading has led her to frequently overlook those closest to her, and still continues to ruin her relationships and career. She can’t turn it off, though, which gives the show some shape; Rebel sends clients to Cassie (most of whom she doesn’t want but ends up helping anyway), Lana does the investigating, and the big stuff is presented to Cruz, including a scandal surrounding some heart valves courtesy of a big corporation that is making people desperately ill – and might be responsible for the death of Cruz’s wife. That’s just the right level of macro season-long plotting and micro case-of-the-week filler, with other supporting characters – Tommy helps Lana bust a domestic abuser, for instance – floating in and out of the cases as necessary.
Since the writing, as mentioned, has all the subtlety of a nuclear bomb, it’s the performances that carry Rebel, and Sagal lends her expertise to round out a character who would easily be insufferable in almost anyone else’s hands. Showrunner Krista Vernoff is careful to depict the cost of Rebel’s activism, too, and not just by having her kids lecture her about being off saving the world instead of raising them. In the best scene of the pilot, Rebel, after just having broken up with Grady after discovering his sneaky plans to file for divorce just in time to receive lifetime palimony, spends a low-key scene with Cruz in which they decide to take on that dodgy valve company. It’s the first time we see her with her foot off the gas, and as she lovingly rests her head on Cruz’s shoulder, defeated by the day’s events, even if only temporarily, you realize that Sagal is doing a lot with this character. I hope she gets her props for it.