Tammy Townsend, Elizabeth Regen, Michael Boatman, Brandon Khalil, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Kate Reinders
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Reviewed by Will Harris
here are precious few networks which can leave guys feeling more stigmatized than Lifetime. With a slogan that unabashedly trumpets the channel as “television for women,” it’s reached a point where the mere act of passing by while surfing through the stations makes you feel like you’re the Duke boys trying to jump the General Lee over an open drawbridge: if you don’t maintain your speed and make it across the chasm, your reputation is going to be shot to all to hell. Once in awhile, though, Lifetime manages to produce a show that can actually appeal to both genders – and we’re not talking about a guilty pleasure show like “Army Wives.”
“Rita Rocks,” starring former “Mad TV” cast member Nicole Sullivan, was the first new original sitcom to be produced for Lifetime in a decade (the previous entry being 1998’s “Oh Baby”), and what’s most notable about the series is that it doesn’t particularly feel like a Lifetime series. This development isn’t as shocking as it could be, given that the network has provided a home for reruns of “Frasier” and “How I Met Your Mother,” neither of which are definitively chick-centric shows, but it’s still mildly surprising, particularly when compared to “Sherri,” the Sherri Shepherd sitcom which premiered on Lifetime the following year.
“Sherri” follows the life of Sherri Robinson (Shepherd), a recently-single mother who’s raising her six-year-old son, Bo (Brandon Khalil), trying to establish the new boundaries for her ex-husband, Kevin (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) and his pregnant girlfriend (Kate Reinders), venturing back into the world of dating, working as a paralegal, and ostensibly trying to carve a niche for herself as an actress / comedienne. That’s a heck of a lot of material to try and fit into a half-hour sitcom, which is probably why the series soon began to ease away from a couple of the storylines. Unfortunately, the one that got short shrift was the one which actually had the most potential, and Sherri’s show business dreams quietly slip into the background in favor of more stories about her clichéd co-workers at the law firm that provides her with gainful employment.
It’s a shame that “Sherri” doesn’t have more laughs. Shepherd’s certainly funny, and in addition to Warner, the series also provides several other sitcom stalwarts, including Michael Boatman (“Spin City”) as Sherri’s new beau and James Avery (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) as her father, with appearances during the season from Jane Curtin, Richard Kind, Rachel Dratch, and David “Sledge Hammer” Rasche as the head of Sherri’s law firm, all of whom score whenever they’re on the screen. It’s the interminable scenes with Sherri’s workplace pals Celia (Tammy Townsend), Summer (Kali Rocha), and Angie (Elizabeth Regen) that kill the show. If it downsized the office space in favor of its family aspects, “Sherri” would be a far funnier series.
This brings us back to “Rita Rocks,” a show which, you may be surprised to hear, does rock on occasion. The premise revolves around Rita (Sullivan), a married mother of two, stepping outside of her life as a retail salesperson and trying to remember what it was like when she was fronting a Bangles cover band in the ‘80s. As such, she forms a band with Patty the postal worker (Tisha Campbell-Martin) and her unemployed neighbor Owen (Ian Gomez). Rita’s husband Jay (Richard Ruccolo, late of “Two Guys and a Girl”), is supportive of this endeavor, and if her two kids – teenager Hallie (Natalie Dreyfuss) and pre-teen Shannon (Kelly Gould) – aren’t 100% behind her, they’re at least tolerant. Hallie needs to be particularly tolerant of the situation, though, since her boyfriend Kip soon becomes the drummer in Rita’s band.
The trials and tribulations of a garage band trying to pick up gigs at local venues is always going on in the background, making for some amusing storylines as well as some fun cover songs, but “Rita Rocks” is at its best when it’s focusing on the family. Sometimes it’s Hallie’s teen angst or Shannon’s difficulties in making friends, which will be particularly entertaining for parents, but the scenes between Rita and Jay regularly offer husband-and-wife dialogue that’s laugh-out-loud funny in its accuracy. (I quoted a couple of lines back to my own spouse. That the response was somewhere between a smirk and a nasty glare is proof that the material was right on the money.)
Gentlemen, if you’re looking to risk your manly reputation by watching one of these sitcoms, then let it be “Rita Rocks.” Nicole Sullivan’s a cutie, the show’s funny, and if it wasn’t for that damned Lifetime logo they’ve stamped on the front, it could pass for just another multi-camera sitcom on a broadcast network – which, at its heart, is exactly what it is. But in the best possible way.
Special Features: Neither set offers much in the way of bonus material, but at least they aren’t completely bare-boned. “Sherri” offers the most, though it’s a bit disingenuous to call its inclusions “webisodes,” since they’re really just excerpts from Shepherd’s stand-up routines. As for “Rita Rocks,” you get a music video for an original song entitled “Something to Worry About.” It’s not much, but it’s a nice song, at least, and it’s performed by the cast, which is kind of cool.