What if, right when you were about to get everything you ever wanted, your entire life fell apart? That question is the driving ideology behind ABC Family’s new drama Chasing Life, in which young journalist April Carver gets diagnosed with cancer just as her personal and professional lives are about to take flight. She must decide how she wants to live the rest of her life—without knowing how much life she actually has left.
Cancer stories have an innate sense of urgency built into the premise, with the constant threat of death ticking in the background like a factory-installed clock. Chasing Life does something interesting (if ultimately somewhat problematic) with this ticking clock: It sort of ignores it. April gets diagnosed before the second-act break of the pilot, but any urgency that comes with this diagnosis gets strangely buried, added to the haphazard pile of complications that is her life. It’s in these complications—a nascent internship at a big Boston newspaper, a new relationship with a co-worker, a family still reeling from the death of her father, and the obligatory troubled teenage sister—that Chasing Life gets caught up in, losing focus on April’s character, and more importantly, April’s cancer.
It’s clear that Chasing Life wants to take its time, to tell small stories about a big problem, and to not solely be a “cancer story.” April’s career and love life are presented in equal importance to her health, and as key factors in the decisions she makes regarding her well-being—for better or for worse. But when dealing with something as big as cancer, it’s almost as if the show is daring to ask the question: How small is too small a story to tell?
The most important thing needed to make this type of small story work is a strong driving force at its center, and that’s unfortunately where Chasing Life stumbles right out of the gate. April is a frustrating character—a type A go-getter who then immediately abandons this defining personality trait when it comes to her health, her romantic relationships, and her family’s strange and increasingly labyrinthine web of secrets, which she immediately adds to by refusing to tell anyone she is sick. Italia Ricci does an admirable job of making all of these disparate pieces somewhat fit together to become a recognizable human being, but her character leaves the viewer with the question of why? Why is she so reluctant to burden her family with this life-changing news? Why, in a premise rife with built-in inner conflict, does all the conflict feel so falsely external?
What’s even more frustrating is how quickly Chasing Life branches out into telling other characters’ stories before the show has figured out its lead. In the three episodes provided for review, April’s mother (an impossibly warm and likable Mary Page Keller) gets back into the dating world with predictable results, and her surly teenage sister (sigh) gets an arc that hits just about every ABC Family teen cliché in the network’s arsenal. Building out the ensemble is great—especially when the ensemble is almost solely made up of women, which is a welcome breath of fresh air—but until April is fully nailed down it feels more like a distraction from the central premise of the show.
Between Breaking Bad, Kristina’s wonderful breast cancer arc on Parenthood, 50/50, and the currently ubiquitous The Fault In Our Stars, cancer-as-story-driver certainly feels like well-trod territory. Though still stumbling around in search of a center, Chasing Life has the potential to tell an interesting story about this one person’s particular journey through life after diagnosis—if it doesn’t get too caught up in the small details. Bits of this potential are seen as early as the third episode, where the central story takes an interesting and unexpected turn. But Chasing Life must make a choice: Does it want to be a show about one person’s journey through life after diagnosis, or does it want to be a show about one person keeping that journey a secret? The latter is an inherently less interesting choice.
Developed by: Susanna Fogel, Joni Lefkowitz, Patrick Sean Smith, and Aaron Kaplan
Starring: Italia Ricci, Mary Page Keller, Aisha Dee, Richard Brancatisano, Haley Ramm
Debuts: Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC Family
Format: Hour-long serialized drama
Three episodes watched for review