Judge Victor Valdivia uses music to express himself. His obscene rap-metal songs are just so touching and vulnerable.
Mother by day. Rocker by nature.
Pity poor Nicole Sullivan. An immensely gifted comic actress, she's never really found a role that makes full use of her immense comedic talents. Her best work on MadTV demonstrated her abilities for both physical and verbal comedy, but that show was way too uneven to watch. Her subsequent guest-star roles were way too small. Finally, given a lead role with the Lifetime sitcom Rita Rocks and an able supporting cast, Sullivan gets moments to shine. Unfortunately, they're all pretty much in her performance, since Rita Rocks: The Complete Season One is a run-of-the-mill family sitcom.
Facts of the Case
Rita (Nicole Sullivan, The King of Queens) is a married suburban mother of two who works a soul-crushing job at a local department store. One morning, feeling trapped and disappointed with her life, she picks up her guitar, which she stopped playing when she was a single aspiring rock singer, and begins to play again. Joined by her nosy but loyal mail carrier Patty (Tisha Campbell-Martin, Martin), her unemployed neighbor Owen (Ian Gomez, Felicity), and her teen daughter's boyfriend Kip (Raviv Ullman, Phil of the Future), she starts a rock band. They play music in her garage in between her day job and family commitments to her husband Jay (Richard Ruccolo, Two Guys and a Girl) and daughters Hallie (Natalie Dreyfuss) and Shannon (Kelly Gould, Lucky Louie). Here are the twenty episodes collected on three discs:
A strange thing happens as Rita Rocks: The Complete Season One progresses: the whole series is built on the idea that Rita uses the band as her outlet for her stress-filled life, yet the band becomes less and less important in some of the later episodes. There are actually several episodes, mostly in the latter half of the season, when the band doesn't appear at all. Rita talks the talk, all right, proclaiming that playing music is the only joy she gets in life, but then the show doesn't really show her doing so all that much. She may as well be doing needlepoint or quilting for all the rocking you'll actually see here.
It would have been interesting to see the show that Rita Rocks is supposed to be. The idea of a married mother who finds freedom in self-expression through art (in this case, music) is an extremely promising and unexplored area in popular culture. There is a lot of humor that could be found in such a premise, some of which would be occasionally incisive or uncomfortable. Rita Rocks, however, never cuts below the surface, settling instead for cheap, easy family sitcom fare. The nosy friend, the snotty PTA head, the smart-alecky kids, the husband who likes sports and food but still loves his wife—every cliché and situation you would expect from standard family sitcoms is seen here. Throughout it all, the band usually takes second stage to the wacky hijinks. Sometimes they perform a cover song, something fairly innocuous like "We Got the Beat" or "Mr. Big Stuff," and then they stop, and the family humor continues, completely unrelated to the music. Only a handful of episodes actually deal with the band itself, and most of these are more about generic problems like when to rehearse or what songs to play. For all that the show promises a rocker mom, there's not that much rock and way too much mom.
The only episode that sort of addresses the supposed story of the show is "I Write the Songs." In this episode Rita worries that the band is doing nothing but playing covers and wonders if maybe she can write an original song. After struggling to do so, she gets inspiration after Shannon gets sick and Rita takes care of her. "Somebody to Worry About," the song she writes in which she contemplates the rocker life she gave up for her family, is actually a pretty good song that gives a voice to Rita's ambivalence. Unfortunately, this story only occupies the second half of the episode. The first half is taken up with a silly plot in which Rita and Patty incorrectly suspect that Kip is cheating on Hallie. Why not spend the entire episode on the story of Rita? It's her show, after all.
There are no real extras that explain any of the creative decisions that Rita Rocks's creators made. Instead, the only extra is a music video that shows the actors recording a full-length version of "Somebody to Worry About" (4:37). It's a nice curio, but that's all you'll get. At least the full-screen transfer and Dolby Stereo mix are both solid, with no real flaws to speak of.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only real reason to sit through Rita Rocks is the cast. Sullivan is so talented that she can sell even the most hackneyed sitcom lines. Here she's surrounded by a skilled roster of supporting players. Campbell-Martin has shown her comedic chops in various places, and her chemistry with Sullivan is stellar. The remaining cast members are given less to do, but shine whenever they can. It's a shame that the actors work their hearts out, considering that they're generally given such stale material.
Rita Rocks isn't an unpleasant or offensive show. It has a few flashes of humor and insight, and the cast is so likable and talented that it's at least an agreeable time filler. It isn't much more than that, however, and that's a shame. A comic actress as gifted as Nicole Sullivan and a unusual and intriguing premise deserve better than to be reduced to such blandly forgettable sitcom fare. Ultimately, Rita Rocks just isn't worth going out of your way for.
Guilty of wasted potential.
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