Concept, cast give show a boost

Television: `That's Life,' CBS drama about higher education, has potential but must quickly fix some flaws.

September 30, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Here's something you don't see everyday: a prime-time network series that celebrates higher education instead of mocking it.

That's the deal with "That's Life," a new CBS drama about a 32-year-old New Jersey bartender who dumps her fiance, angers her parents, and worries her friends by deciding to finally chase her dream of a college education.

This isn't the first network series to celebrate education. "A Different World" did it in the late 1980s and early '90s, and "Paper Chase" tried it for one season in 1978.

But it's rare enough that you should go out of your way tomorrow to catch the premiere. Beyond the positive messages about a lifetime of learning, "That's Life" is also warm, often funny, and has one of the finest supporting casts in network television. The performances by Paul Sorvino, Ellen Burstyn, Debi Mazur and Kevin Dillon alone are worth a tune-in.

Heather Paige Kent stars as Lydia DeLucca, the blue-collar bartender turned commuter student at Montclair College. The series demands a lot of Kent; each hour opens and closes with her behind the bar of the neighborhood tavern in which she works, talking about her life to an older male patron who silently sips his beer and, presumably, listens.

In these scenes, Kent is essentially delivering a monologue -- doing stand-up comedy. She's not bad, but this material is better suited to a Roseanne or Ellen DeGeneres, performers who were great stand-up comics before they came to series television.

The pilot struggles for most of the hour in trying to find a voice that's part comedy and part drama, and the bar scenes play a little too sitcomy. Finding a consistent voice is a not a minor problem. If the producers don't figure it out by the second or third episode, that's probably going to be all she wrote for "That's Life," and that will be too bad. The pilot has a lot going for it.

The best moments are slightly off-beat, such as the scene featuring Lydia stopped at the tollbooth on the New Jersey Turnpike in which her father (Sorvino) works. She's late for her first day of school, because the rusted-out wreck she drives has been acting up. But her father's oblivious to her stress, and wants to chat. "Hey, listen to this," he says, handing her a cassette case and turning up the volume so she can hear what he's listening to.

"You know who that is?" he asks, as we hear an off-key, thin-voiced version of the Jim Reeves country-western classic "He'll Have to Go."

Lydia shakes her head, indicating she doesn't know the singer.

"That's Joe Pesci, the actor. He's in all those mob movies. Doesn't he sing beautiful?" her father asks.

She nods dumbly.

"Let me tell ya, multi-talented people. Ain't that something?" he says, as Lydia makes her getaway.

The scene works on several levels. In one respect, it's a stressed-out daughter and out-of-it-father humorously mis-communicating while angry drivers honk.

On another level, it's funny because Pesci's singing is so bad, and her father thinks it's "beautiful." But Sorvino fans also know that Sorvino is a very serious opera singer. He quit the hit series "Law & Order" to devote more time to singing - a decision some fans thought was nuts.

So, this actor singer-wannabe singing the praises of another actor singer-wannabe who happens to be really awful offers viewers in the know an extra smile.

Would that there were more scenes that worked this well.

Unfortunately, some of the worst scenes are in the classroom. The producers use a hoary, old TV formula that has never worked particularly well: the ethnic, working-class female student encountering the snobbish professor.

It was the basis of "Mrs. G. Goes to College" in 1961 on CBS, with the beloved Gertrude Berg as the older student, and Cedrick Harwicke as the mean professor. In 1997, CBS tried the formula with Rhea Perlman in "Pearl." Malcolm McDowell played that professor. Again, the professor is an Englishman, this time played by Peter Firth.

Berg had a 30-year run on radio and TV as Molly Goldberg in "The Goldbergs." As Mrs. G, she lasted three months. Perlman ran for 11 years as Carla on "Cheers." As Pearl, she lasted three episodes.

"That's Life" has a good message and great cast. But if it wants to last, it's going to have to lose the professor, settle on a single voice, and do it fast.

`That's Life'

When: Tomorrow at 8 p.m.

Where: WJZ (Channel 13).

In brief: Promise - and problems.

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