CBS’ Saturday sked is about to get sassed up. Fresh and funny, “That’s Life” feels at first like a “Felicity”-“Ally McBeal” hybrid, but quickly establishes itself as a quirky, femme-targeted dramedy in its own right. Show, which previews Sun., Oct. 1, before settling into its Saturday nights at 8 timeslot, boasts a fetching leading lady, a terrific supporting cast and a poignant, observational wit. It might have been better packaged on Tuesday with the network’s “Judging Amy,” but it certainly adds a welcome woman’s touch to an otherwise macho night that’s home to “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “The District.” You go, girl!
Thanks to “Survivor,” the Eye web has started to think young again, so what better place to continue that direction than on a college campus. With the help of hunky students, comely educators and a Pollyanna passion that makes every course seem interesting, “Life” bubbles with youthful enthusiasm. But CBS hasn’t done away with the familiar — Paul Sorvino and Ellen Burstyn provide the faces with which folks in the net’s older target demo will feel comfortable. Lydia DeLucca (Heather Paige Kent) is a thirtysomething New Jersey bartender who ditches her lunkhead fiance (Sonny Marinelli) and returns to school. But even with the mounds of homework and snooty lecturers, her biggest obstacles come from a close circle of people who don’t understand her newly discovered independence.
Her mom (Burstyn) is a career housewife who just doesn’t “get it” (“You’re writing a paper during a Giants game?”), and her brother (Kevin Dillon) is a whackjob cop who lives at home and loves his handcuffs.
There’s also Jackie (Debi Mazar) and Candy (Kristin Bauer), Lydia’s two ditzy pals who spend more time whining in a hair salon than trying to relate to Lydia’s personal Renaissance.
Lydia’s only advocate, though a mild one, is her father (Sorvino), a good-natured toll booth collector who isn’t the smartest man in the Tri-state area but gives sound advice and hugs.
Determined to make it at Montclair U., Lydia spends the debut episode either acclimating to her overwhelming surroundings or catching the eyes of condescending teachers who are threatened by her free spirit. Her chief adversary is Professor Leski (Peter Firth), one of Lydia’s tavern regulars who now must come tete-a-tete with the woman who controls his gin-and-tonic flow.
When boiled down to a simple plotline, there’s nothing particularly original about “Life.” The execution, however, is full of flighty opinions about changing one’s philosophical path and peppered with an offbeat approach to dysfunctional families.
Kent is a delight as the excited freshman who has to answer to narrow-minded parents, a dim-bulb ex-beau and horny male coeds who think she’s a lonely divorcee. Armed with a tough-gal attitude and a firm decision to better her life, Lydia tackles her barriers with gusto and guts.
Also solid are vet thesps Sorvino and Burstyn, who bring a degree of excellence to what could have been just another middling hour, while Mazar stands out as a spunky gum-popper who champions Lydia, but still thinks she’s making a colossal mistake.
Tech credits are tops, with Mick Jackson’s breezy helming a real boon to a very sturdy overall production.