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On The Tube: CBS ventures into Soprano-land with dramedy 'That's Life'

Friday, September 29, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The summer movie "Coyote Ugly" gave us a blue-collar Jersey girl, daughter of a toll collector, who longed to make it as a songwriter in New York.

The new CBS show, "That's Life," gives us a blue-collar Jersey girl, daughter of a toll collector, who longs to go to college. Even though the leading character, Lydia De Lucca (Heather Paige Kent), is a bartender, no one dances on the bar or lights it on fire -- at least not in the first episode.

The series, which CBS calls a dramedy, premieres Sunday from 8 to 9 p.m. although it will settle into its regular 8 p.m. Saturday slot on Oct. 7. Diane Ruggiero, an Italian-American from Jersey, wrote the pilot while working as a waitress.

But when it comes to the blue-collar-Jersey-Italian-Catholic connections, Ruggiero is like a cook with a heavy hand who doesn't know when to quit with the garlic and the onions and the oregano. Lydia combines two, two icons (Frank Sinatra and the pope) into one anecdote. The family has one Virgin Mary statue outside and one inside and probably a couple tucked upstairs. And everyone eats Sunday meal during halftime of the Giants football game, with the timer ticking away the minutes.

And people wonder why stereotypes persist.

"That's Life" opens with a bridal shower for Lydia and contractor Lou Buttafucco (Sonny Marinelli), her fiance whose truck proclaims he's "no relation" to that other Buttafuoco. Lydia is attended by her two best friends, hair-salon owner Jackie (Debi Mazar) and Candy (Kristin Bauer), a former Miss Jersey contestant.

Lydia's mother (Ellen Burstyn) gives her a bassinet as a gift. "Wedding shower. Baby shower. How long you think I'm gonna live?" she asks. Not long enough to make this quip believable.

Lydia, 32, wants to fulfill her lifelong dream of going to college and earning a degree. She doesn't want to have children right away, a subject she thrashes out with Lou during the shower. Now, they have been engaged for eight years and they never talked about this? Or Lou chooses this moment to change his mind about their agreed-upon timetable?

So the bridal shower turns into a bridal breakup and Lydia and Lou go their separate ways, although they keep running into each other -- including at the Sunday dinner table. Lydia enrolls in a nearby state university and gets her taste of overpriced textbooks, pampered students, sneering professors and at least one instructor (Steven Eckholdt) whose good looks set the girls giggling.

"That's Life" has several things going for it: A bright, personable lead in Kent and vivid supporting player in Mazar, with her cat-like blue eyes and sharp tongue. Burstyn, of course, won an Academy Award for "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and Paul Sorvino, here playing the dad, has lent glowering gravitas to such movies as "GoodFellas." And when was the last time you watched an entertainment show that featured a discussion about determinism and free will?

On the down side, Lydia and Lou have no chemistry. They were engaged for nearly a decade and apparently the romance is rekindled in a future episode. Where's the heat?

And Lydia never heard of student loans, which might have enabled her to go to college, her dream since age 5? Another annoyance is Kevin Dillon as Paulie, Lydia's twentysomething brother who is a New Jersey cop but acts like he's still 13. He may grow up a bit in a future episode, which can only be a good thing.

The girl talk can be smart but the family life is way too hackneyed. This is 2000, after all.

As Sorvino recently told TV Guide, in explaining why he wouldn't star in HBO's famously successful family series: " 'The Sopranos' is very smart and has integrity, but yes, I'm worried about Italian stereotyping." Let's hope he conveys that to the creators of "That's Life."

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