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Fall 2000: "That's Life"

Mr. Michaels was right. When he called us together for our annual pre-Fall Season staff meeting, he warned us all that this would be a tough year. It would be tough because, Mr. Michaels complained, no shows truly had the Stink. And he was right. When the assignments were handed out and I got stuck with reviewing That's Life I was certain I had a slam-dunk of Providenceial proportions on my hands.

What I had forgotten was that I rather liked the first episode of Providence -- even if other Vidiots have chosen it as their whipping girl [kicks Schmeiser under the table]. For what it is, Providence is okay. But then, I also used to watch Sisters.

I cannot say that I enjoyed That's Life the way I enjoyed the gyrations of Sela Ward in that prime-time soaper. I didn't even enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the triumphant return of B.J. Hunnicut to network TV. In fact, I didn't enjoy That's Life at all, because it is a bad, bad show.

The trouble is it's not egregiously bad. It's not agonizingly bad. It's not the kind of bad one can wring humor from. It's just, well, not good.

That's Life stars Heather Paige Kent as 32-year-old Lydia DeLucca, Italian-American resident of northern New Jersey and, by the middle of the first episode, freshman college student at Montville University. A 32-year-old freshman! A working-class 32-year-old freshman! "My, how the laughs will flow," chuckled executive producer Anita Addison as she thought up this premise.

Which is only the first miscalculation of many. Let's put these up on the blackboard for the whole class.

First: Anyone who has even set foot on an American state college campus in the last twenty years knows that a 32-year-old freshman, let alone one as obviously comely as Heather Paige Kent, would not stand out. State colleges are covered in people well past high school graduation. State schools would have to post National Guard snipers at the doors to keep them out.

Second: State colleges are also wallpapered with working class students. It's been decades, possibly generations, since college was only for the privileged. State colleges are, for all intents and purposes, second high schools. Nearly everyone living above the poverty level ends up at a state school for at least a few semesters.

Adding up our first and second factors we find that what we have in That's Life is a fish-in-water story, which is probably even less interesting than the hackneyed fish-out-of-water story we've all come to loathe. Worse, the script thinks it's a fish-out-of-water story, proving that at least this batch of screenwriters didn't make it to Teleplays 102 their freshman year, possibly because their state school didn't offer such advanced coursework.

As we begin the first episode, then, we know the premise is blown. At its heart it wants to be a half-hour sitcom -- and a dated one at that -- but it could still be a good show if That's Life perhaps offered us a realistic look at juggling working for a bare-minimum living, dealing with one's family, and going to college. Allow me to add to our equation, then, miscalculations three and four.

Third: If you want your cast to appear to be Italian-Americans in New Jersey, it would pay to hire some actual Italian-Americans from New Jersey. Or, really, almost anyone from within the white-flight blast radius of Brooklyn. Alas, Ellen Burstyn plays Lydia's Italian-American mother, Ellen Burstyn being about as Italian as Pope John Paul II. Paul Sorvino plays Lydia's father, which almost works, because he really is Italian-American; except that no matter how you dress him, Paul Sorvino doesn't look like New Jersey working class. He looks like a wealthy Brooklynite who moved to New Jersey to get away from all the Italians.

Heather Paige Kent herself looks like, well, like someone with three first names. Blue collar Italian? I don't think so, unless by blue collar you mean someone who's on the B list at Spago.

In fact the only person who looks, talks, and acts like they're really from the New York City metropolitan area is certified New Yorker Debi Mazar. This girl's accent could cut steel. I've always loved Debi and I'm glad to see her getting work, but, Deb, you've got to choose your projects more carefully. Debi plays herself, as always, with aplomb and elan and other words not usually heard around Queens. Here in That's Life she's called Jackie O'Grady and she is, of course, Lydia's best friend, because Debi Mazar is always some other actress' best friend.

Fourth: Realism, or even a semblance of it, requires that your characters talk like actual human beings. This means that a line like "I don't want to have kids right away, I want to make something of myself!" has to go. Preferably, it shouldn't have even arrived so that it has to be removed, but these things do sometimes happen.

Realism also requires that you populate the background with believable extras. This might require doing a little research -- for example, actually visiting a college campus in New Jersey. The creators of That's Life chose to skip this step, instead dropping in students who might be perfect for Los Angeles but look just plain stupid for the East Coast. I'm willing to bet that there isn't one single state college student east of the Mississippi -- heck, east of Carlsbad Caverns -- still wearing a mohawk, but there he is, off in the background of Montville University. I was rather surprised to discover that the college scenes for the show were shot on location at UCLA; I thought they were on a backlot. It takes a lot of work to make a real place look like something you built yourself.

So, summing up: We have a lead actress who cannot be believed, surrounded by an unrealistic family and friends who are possibly confused about their exact geographic location, speaking unrealistic dialogue on unconvincing sets, revolving through a situation so uninteresting and unrelated to the real world as to make the surface of Mars appear germane to my choice of lunch. Total: A bad show. Jaw-droppingly bad? No. Stunningly, cripplingly bad? No. Just plain old run-of-the-mill mediocre not-very-good bad.

I find at this point that I have detailed the situation but not the specifics of the first episode. No matter -- I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.


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