That's Not Any Life I'd Want to Live
I first came upon That’s Life while channel surfing. I saw Debi Mazar on screen with very big hair and thought, “This should be entertaining,” certain that I was watching some chick movie on Lifetime. In fact, it was not until I went to find the show the following week that I learned that it aired on CBS.
I was inclined to tune in again, because I thought the show was about Mazar’s character, Jackie O’Grady, since she was central to that first episode I watched. So, I was dismayed to learn that That’s Life actually focuses on another character, Lydia DeLucca (Heather Paige Kent), and that Jackie is only one her best friends. As Lydia, Kent is likeable, friendly, outwardly self-assured but internally confused. She has recently broken up with her long-time boyfriend and has decided, in her 30s, to go to college an iconoclast in her Italian-American family and neighborhood in the fictitious but familiar Brookfield, New Jersey.
Lydia and her best friends Jackie, who owns a beauty shop, and Candy Cooper (Kristen Bauer), who sells cars play up the Jersey Girl aspects of their characters: they all live in Brookfield, where they went to grade school; they wear lots of makeup and tight clothes; they have loud mouths and hearts of gold. You do not have to listen too closely to catch the strains of Springsteen here: back in the day, men drove fast cars and played guitars; women were pretty, gullible, and a little bit sassy; houses (because everyone owned a house back then) all had screened doors to slam. Problem: That’s Life takes place in the current millennium.
Week after week, Lydia tries to be independent and modern (this means working as a bartender and going to college). Week after week, she finds that family and friends are the most important things in life through some problem, large or small, which is usually resolved by 10pm. However, even “independent” Lydia ends up moving back in with her parents because she can not swing the finances on her own. Her brother Paulie (Kevin Dillon), on the other hand, already lives there, where he has his meals cooked and clothes ironed by mom. Make no mistake, though he’s totally straight; he’s even had a few girlfriends.
There is nothing actually wrong with Kent as a performer, it’s just that the other characters are more compelling than Lydia. At the same time, Kent has some hefty competition on screen: her parents, Dolly and Frank DeLucca, are played by veteran actors Ellen Burstyn and Paul Sorvino. Actually, the acting in That’s Life is consistently high-quality, professional, and convincing. Even Kevin Dillon (brother of Matt) hams it up as Paulie, a cop and a loveable lug of a guy. In fact, the whole family seems kind of huggable and endearing, at least for an episode or two.
With the popularity of The Sopranos on HBO, it is no surprise that Italian-Americans are now A-list subject matter for network TV. But The Sopranos is violent, and has also been criticized by people who say that it emphasizes a negative Mafioso stereotype that Italian Americans have been trying to counter. The DeLuccas, in contrast to the Sopranos, are warm and fuzzy, even if the males of the clan frequently behave like lunkheads. If one were to remove from The Sopranos the violence, the mafia infighting, the complex characters, and the plot twists, you might be left with That’s Life. However, less complexity and more adorability does not rid the show of stereotypes.
Still, That’s Life is nice. It’s friendly. It’s harmless. It doesn’t make my brain hurt. How bad can it be? Unfortunately, what at a glance is endearing soon turns retrograde, and not in the cool retro furniture kind of way. It’s more like those funny skinny line drawings of 1950s housewives. While they’re kind of precious, they’re also disturbing emaciated woman in high heels and a dress and apron, smiling while running a vacuum cleaner. Like those drawings, That’s Life evokes some past that never was. That’s Life looks back at a time when things were “simpler,” when families mattered . . . although families were, of course, composed of a mommy and a daddy and a boy and a girl; people lived in safe, ethnically homogeneous enclaves. It was cute and silly for a woman to want something other than an overbearing provider-husband, a couple of kids, and ample time to cook a huge Italian meal every night.
Lydia runs into this stereotype repeatedly. A case in point is the 2000-2001 season finale of That’s Life. She plans a celebration for Dolly and Frank’s anniversary. The big ending involves an apology from the priest visiting from the small town in Italy where all the DeLuccas get married who had refused to bless Frank and Dolly’s marriage because Dolly is (gasp!) Hungarian. Not every television season needs to end in a death or a marriage, but this one didn’t even address the issues that Lydia, ostensibly the protagonist, has been working through in previous episodes.
Race, class, and gender diversity is not a prerequisite for a clever, well-crafted television show. However, in That’s Life, which purports to be a show about a woman trying to slough off old-world dogma for 21st-century ambitions, it seems Lydia DeLucca always finds that what prevails is home (here located in a single-family Victorian with gables), family (the traditional unit), and conservative ideals, including the one that says women can’t take good care of themselves. And all that’s much scarier than the mafia.