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On the Tube: Change is good: Show's creator sticks with renewed 'That's Life'

Friday, August 31, 2001

By Rob Owen Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- Last year CBS introduced the drama series "That's Life" with the fairy tale story of how its creator, Diane Ruggiero, went from writing at night while waiting tables in New Jersey to landing a series on the network's prime-time schedule.

The fairy tale didn't last.

"That's Life" premiered last fall to decent ratings, but then viewers began to tune out. With that came behind-the-scenes turmoil and the feeling that though Ruggiero created an interesting family of characters, the stories she was telling were too much alike from week to week.

 
 
TV PREVIEW

'THAT'S LIFE'

WHEN: 9 tonight on CBS.

STARRING: Heather Paige Kent, Ellen Burstyn, Paul Sorvino

   
 

"It was very difficult," Ruggiero said at a CBS party last month. "We've switched producers so many times, I felt like a foster child. Nobody wants me."

Midway through last season, Ruggiero said she even considered quitting.

"The whole reason I wanted to do this with my life was that [writing] was my joy," she said. "I'd waitress and come home and write. That's where my heart was and it was the greatest ... When it started to [come apart last season], I started to be like, I'd rather go back to [New Jersey] and have it be good again. I don't feel that way anymore ... I'm not ready to walk away from it. Last year I thought I'd get to that point, but then I'd see little glimpses of Lydia or a moment between Frank and Dolly and realized, that's what I want to be a part of."

Set in Ruggiero's native New Jersey, "That's Life" tells the stories of the De Lucca family from the point of view of thirtysomething daughter Lydia (Heather Paige Kent). The initial idea for the show was based on Ruggiero's own experiences. Paul Sorvino plays the family patriarch, Frank, and Ellen Burstyn is his wife, Dolly.

"That's Life" has moved to a new time slot, 9 p.m. Fridays, and midway through last season got a new executive producer: Lynn Marie Latham, who created "Homefront" with her husband, Bernard Lechowick.

Though Ruggiero created "That's Life" and is now co-executive producer, Latham's experience (she spent several years on "Knots Landing") means she's in the driver's seat. This is typical for network television where a more experienced show runner is often paired with a novice.

Ruggiero praised Latham's instruction and attributes the show's surprising renewal to her efforts and the confidence CBS has in her abilities.

"If Lynn wasn't on the show, we wouldn't be back on," Ruggiero said.

But she also acknowledges "That's Life" is no longer the series she set out to create. "That show ended at episode 11. It's a different show. This is what CBS wanted. It's getting better ratings. It tested better than the pilot did.

"If I wanted to go back to waitressing and live in my parents' basement, I could complain about it and tell them, 'No, you're wrong, that's not my vision' and be an idiot, or I could sink or swim, and I'm swimming. Lynn is brilliant. She's doing exactly what CBS wants her to and I think she's done it with a lot of compassion and heart and respect. She's just aces in my book."

Ruggiero said Latham is an expert at outlining and story structure.

"I'm like the paprika," Ruggiero said. "I'll come in with the New Jersey perspective."

But unlike some series set in the Garden State, "That's Life" viewers will never see a mafia storyline, Ruggiero said, for a simple reason: "My father would kill me."

When "That's Life" returns with original episodes Sept. 21, more changes are in store for the series, including the death of a regular recurring character and a pregnancy.

The new season will mark Lydia's sophomore year in college and she picks a major: sports medicine, which Latham said combines her two favorite things: "sports and interfering in people's lives."

Titus Welliver ("Falcone," "Brooklyn South") joins "That's Life" as a series regular, playing Lydia's mentor at a clinic where she works. And Lydia will move in with her sassy friend, Jackie (Debi Mazar).

Lydia's brother, Paulie (Kevin Dillon), wants to marry her classmate, Plum (Danielle Harris), which doesn't go over well with Dolly.

The diner Dolly and Frank own has been renovated and Dolly will run for city council.

If she had her druthers, Ruggiero said she'd still be making "That's Life" her way, but she acknowledged, "That's not what other people wanted. It would be self-righteous to think what I want is the best way ... It still has the heart, it still has the characters, but I guess it had to be more mainstream."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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