Erin Brockovich’s personal story is elementally compelling: That’s why the movie about her works so well. As played by Julia Roberts in 2000’s “Erin Brockovich,” she is a crusader in the legal arena, an advocate who’s less self-taught than simply intuitive. She’s opposed to the establishment on both sides of the courtroom, and her wins don’t come from a sort of legal doublespeak but from her humanity.
This is a tricky balance to strike onscreen. The first two episodes of “Rebel,” a new ABC drama inspired by Brockovich’s work, don’t quite get there. Katey Sagal plays Annie “Rebel” Bello, who works to assist and aid those who have fallen victim to corporate greed. Notably, in the show’s early going, this includes a medical company whose faulty heart valves, we are told, have ruined the health and lives of those unlucky enough to have them implanted.
The show, from its premise, sets itself up as a story of the people taking on the powerful, but tends to trip up over the most basic elaborations of its main idea. “I have nothing against corporations, corporations can do a lot of good,” Rebel tells a TV host in the first episode, referencing her pride in corporate America having produced the COVID-19 vaccine. “I’m a proud American, Marta, I say everyone should earn their living — just, you know, don’t poison people while you do it.”
This invocation of what may be the most impressive and dazzling display of scientific ingenuity of the young century to make the case that corporations are not all bad feels random, the product of a desire to avoid alienating anyone at all. This impulse crops up again in the series’ second episode, in which a potentially knotty storyline about accusations of racism and assault becomes, in the end, about the “everybody-gets-a-trophy” ethos around young people today — an easy target, and one that doesn’t require the series to have much on its mind after all. Trying to please everyone is a tricky line to walk when you’re making a show about a person whose life’s calling is fighting the establishment.
Sagal, a performer of charm and seemingly inborn relatability, does her best with the role, though Rebel tends to skitter all over the map. The show gives her a backstory and a set of traits — generous to a fault, somewhat careless in love, obsessively protective of those to whom she’s loyal — that don’t consistently jibe with Sagal’s laid-back persona, or with Rebel’s hazy relationship with her work. We see that Rebel’s career is her life but are left after two episodes unclear of what exactly she sees as her remit, beyond all-purpose fixing. (The show also suggests that Rebel’s personality informs her work, but we don’t see much evidence of that beyond that the work is demanding and Rebel is indefatigable.) As if to give her a hand in explaining herself, the show constructs big opponents: A corporation so bad, for instance, that even those who are “proud Americans” can oppose it, or a husband who is self-evidently a louse. Complaining about Rebel’s passion for her work, this dullard shouts, “You care more about getting on the news than about getting home to cook me dinner!” Of course he is played by John Corbett, the “Sex and the City” actor as closely identified with standing in the way of a woman’s pursuit of knowing herself as any other. And of course his opposition to Rebel’s work overrides our lack of understanding of what, exactly, her work really is.
Aspects of “Rebel” suggest promise: The war between Rebel and a corporate-law shark ex (James Lesure) over their daughter (Lex Scott Davis) may yet break into a conversation about what Rebel’s work really is, and what it means to her beyond truisms. Describing the virtue of the work her shark father does, Rebel’s daughter (Lex Scott Davis) declares: “Everyone’s entitled to a zealous representation […] it’s the constitutional premise of our entire justice system.” This is a striking overstatement of the morality and necessity of the role corporate defense attorneys have to play, and suggests that Rebel’s daughter may indeed not be much of a rebel at all.
If anyone is equipped to bring debates about a complicated workplace to human scale for network TV, it’s showrunner Krista Vernoff, entrusted in recent years with “Grey’s Anatomy,” the current standard-bearer for workplace dramas. All the pieces are there to get “Rebel” to a place of real interest — genuinely appealing issues, the inherent conflict of the legal profession, a complicated protagonist and a showrunner who knows a bit about writing such women. The show simply needs to do better at getting out of its own way, and to exhibit less risk aversion and more of a rebel heart.
“Rebel” debuts on ABC April 8 at 10 p.m.