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Ruby and the Rockits debuts tonight on ABC Family at 8:30 p.m. EDT/7:30 p.m. CDT.

I’ve gotta say that when I asked myself how cult show creator (and former teen idol) Shaun Cassidy would make the leap to cable, I didn’t imagine he’d do so with a family sitcom about aging rock stars played by his brothers and the daughter one of them never knew he had played by the girl from Spy Kids. But here we are, the Cassidy family is ready and waiting, Alexa Vega is singing her little heart out, and Ruby and the Rockits is about to debut.

Cassidy seems to resurface with a new show every few years or so, and every time he does, most of the press around the show consists of stories that read, “Didja know that teen idol Shaun Cassidy now writes scripts? And he’s not terrible?” Cassidy was responsible for the best of the mid-90s X-Files alikes, the weird Northern Exposure/Stephen King novel mash-up American Gothic, which aired for one season on CBS and attracted a vocal cult (the whole thing’s available on both DVD and Hulu). He was also responsible for the best of the wave of creepy sci-fi serials that followed in the immediate wake of Lost, Invasion, another weirdly unsettling small town show that aired for only one season and attracted a vocal cult. In between, he made a teen soap (The Mountain), a show about undercover agents (Cover Me) and a show about, uh, Celtic warriors that starred a young Heath Ledger (Roar). Not all of these were good, but they all sung with Cassidy’s attempts to push the envelopes of whatever genre he found himself in. Cassidy’s one of those guys who deserves to have a solid hit under his belt, which is why his move to cable is so promising.

Enter ABC Family, whose oddly consistent lineup I wrote about here, a network itching to get into the family comedy game that the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have proved there’s still life in. Critic Jaime Weinman has written about how in the absence of big networks doing old genres like family sitcoms or light action dramas, those genres have migrated to cable, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the success of shows like Hannah Montana, shows that might have thrived in the TGIF lineup of old. None of the networks are programming these kinds of shows, even though there’s clearly an audience for them, and that’s led to a glut of shows on Disney that are demonstrably worse than the TGIF shows (if such a thing seems possible) because, Disney seems to shrug, kids’ll watch any old shit anyway, so why not?

Ruby and the Rockits is pretty clearly an attempt by ABC Family to find its own Hannah Montana. Every episode features one or two musical sequences (either from the aforementioned Rockits, some sort of weird ‘80s new wave act now playing the nostalgia showroom at a casino, or from Ruby and her cousin, who both pursue musical ambitions), and Ruby herself is clearly meant to be an aspirational character for young girls to look up to. Her dad’s a rock star! She’s got a great singing voice! She’s clearly got it all together! Ruby has a leg up on Hannah in at least one regard – Vega is a much, much better actress than Miley Cyrus. Cyrus’ Hannah performance is one of the strangest things to ever make it on mainstream television, as though she stepped through a time portal out of the cast of a popular ‘20s stage musical and into a sitcom and didn’t bother modulating her performance at all. She SHOUTS EVERY LINE, and the rest of the cast HAS TO MATCH HER or GET LEFT BEHIND.

Vega, on the other hand, has an appealing charm that carries her through some of the more unbelievable notions of the show (such as the fact that Ruby has just now found out who her dad is and has just abruptly wandered into his life). She’s probably the best thing in a cast where almost everyone else seems to engage in as much over-the-top mugging as possible, though at least they’re all willing to share scenes with each other and seem to exist in the same fictional universe. The entire show hinges on believing that Ruby’s so plucky and fun that the other members of the Gallagher family would rally around her and welcome her into their brood. In Vega’s hands, you buy it.

It’s hard to review Ruby and the Rockits both because roughly 99.99 percent of the people reading this site are never going to want to watch it, and the few that do will probably just want to because they have young children screaming at them about it. To that end, though, I’ll say that the show is not as bad as Hannah Montana or the other Disney Channel shows, and it’s probably right at the level of those old TGIF shows (strange to live in a world where Family Matters seems like an oasis of mediocrity). Tonight’s pilot isn’t very good, straining too hard to set everything in motion and leaning too heavily on easy jokes about how goofy the Rockits were back in the ‘80s (they wore stupid clothes, and they had big hair, OMG!). There’s also a weird undercurrent of sexual tension between every male cast member and Vega, which is weird precisely because they’re all supposed to be related to her. (Though at least in the case of her older cousin, the weirdness is intentional. He has a crush on her, and if the two ever attend Les Cousins Dangereux at any point, I will watch every episode of Ruby and the Rockits until the day I die.)

But in the next two episodes, the show starts to develop something of a point-of-view. It’s still full of stupid jokes about the ‘80s (the Rockits once recorded a song called “Chunnel of Love”), and everybody learns a lesson at the end of the episode (the studio audience actually goes, “Aw!” at one point). This is not the kind of show I will likely be tuning in for week to week, but I don’t think that there shouldn’t be a place on the dial for it. The best family comedies, shows like The Cosby Show and Roseanne, have a specific, well-defined point-of-view, and Ruby can’t quite reach that point yet. But, perhaps because it’s a family affair behind the scenes, the show’s message that families should stick together no matter what comes across as sweet more than it comes across as cloying. And that’s a start.

Grade for Pilot: C-

Grade for first three episodes: B-

Stray observations:

  • Look, I know that no one here is going to watch this show, but please check out the first thirty seconds of the pilot just to see the title sequence, which is going along nicely enough with all kinds of “This is a family sitcom!” laughing and joking and shenanigans, and then at the end, David Cassidy leans down in front of everyone else to sing the capper to the song, and it’s horrifying and hilarious and terrific all at once. Then you can change the channel.
  • By the third episode, the series is trafficking in very special episode territory, what with a plotline about one of the teens getting drunk. But that fact seems almost tertiary to the rest of what goes on. Cassidy is using his ability to write interesting character dynamics to avoid some of the usual family sitcom trappings. He’s not entirely successful, unfortunately, but the fact that he’s trying at all means this is better than it really has any right to be.

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