Life Unexpected debuts tonight at 9 p.m. EST on The CW.
For me, one of the big dividing lines in TV criticism last decade was whether or not you liked Everwood. There were plenty of arguments out there about The WB's more acclaimed Gilmore Girls, but for the most part, the big TV critics loved Gilmore Girls, largely because it had a little something for everyone. Everwood was a trickier beast, a show that wore its sentimentality and earnestness on its sleeve and was never forgiven for it by some. Now, that's fine. I get that earnest is not the way most of us wake up and face the day. Cynicism is far more prevalent (and with good reason). But I enjoy a good, well-crafted bit of earnestness almost more than something blithely cynical. On the other hand, it's hard to do earnestness well, without having it seem hacky.
Enter Life Unexpected, The CW's big bid to reinvent itself as The WB, circa 2002. Most of the (mostly kind) early reviews of the show have focused on its similarities to Gilmore Girls - a feisty mom who's confronted with the teenage daughter she had at 16 and gave up for adoption trades quips with said daughter (and the deadbeat dad) - but I'd say the more obvious spiritual forebear is Everwood. Like that earlier show, Life Unexpected seems to take place in a kind of American utopia, where even the dive bars are squeakily hygienic. Like that earlier show, much of the series is built around decaying family relationships that are placed under a microscope by a crisis. And like that earlier show, Life Unexpected piles on the sentiment and the earnest and largely gets away with it. In the three episodes I've seen, Life Unexpected isn't perfect, but it's doing something no other show on TV is doing right now and doing it surprisingly well.
The weirdest thing to consider about Life Unexpected may be the notion that former WB star Shiri Appleby (of Roswell fame) is apparently old enough to have a teenage daughter (and, at 31, she is, which is enough to make anyone who was a teen in the '90s feel old). Her character, Cate Cassidy, is the kind of woman who exists solely in the land of television and movies. She's a radio morning talk host who discusses her sexual misadventures and lack of desire to find a committed relationship frankly, to the delight of her substantial Portland, Ore., audience. Trading quips with her is fellow WB refugee Kerr Smith (he was Jack on Dawson's Creek), who plays her fellow host Ryan. But, as soon as it can, the show lets us know this is all a front. Cate's in a committed relationship, and her boyfriend is about to pop the question, her emotional hangups aside. This ends up being nice, as I don't know if I could have handled yet another fictional woman who's Not Sure She Believes in Love.
Now, honestly, the first ten minutes or so of the Life Unexpected pilot are fairly painful. The exposition, such as it is, is delivered horribly, mostly just tossed out there to die by creator Liz Tigelaar's script, which tries to bolster is with faux wit. This all culminates in a lengthy scene where Cate and Ryan rattle on on the radio as Cate's teenage daughter - whom she doesn't know is out there, listening, in radio land - listens in, on her way to find her birth father for the first time. Cate's daughter is named Lux, which is just about the most irritating name you could coin for a character like this, so if you think Life Unexpected is passing up genuinely warm and witty and enjoyable for forced twee at this point, I'm not going to blame you for bailing.
But you should really stick it out because once Lux (who's played by the down-to-earth and remarkable Brittany Robertson) finds her dad, the series settles down and starts laying some emotional groundwork that it then proceeds to pay off in the next few episodes. Again, nothing here is quite perfect just yet - there's a lengthy montage of Cate being unable to cook things in one episode that is a.) something you've seen before and b.) painful - but the show is doing the hard work of getting the characters into places where they'll have emotionally honest conversations with each other, and that suggests that the heart, as it were, is in the right place.
The best thing Tigelaar and her writers have going for them is that they're great at writing one-on-one scenes between their characters, particularly between Lux and anyone she happens to talk to. Tigelaar is adopted (and apparently based the series on a belief she had as a child that Nancy Reagan was her biological mother), and she gets directly to the heart of how it feels to wonder about birth parents and wonder why, exactly, they wanted to give you up. The rationale she comes up with for Lux to not be adopted by anyone and thus bouncing through the foster system until she decides to find her parents is a little weak, but it's the sort of thing you forgive in a pilot like this, mostly because you just want the characters to come up with a reason to hang out together.
And this is to say nothing of Kristoffer Polaha as Nate "Baze" Bazile, Cate's high school one-night stand and, consequently, Lux's father. Polaha's guested on a lot of my favorite shows over the years, but I don't know that I could have told you who he was based on those (as an example, he plays Carlton on Mad Men). On Life Unexpected, he looks like a genuine TV star, sinking his teeth into a role that could be cliche - gone-to-seed high school jock who realizes that there's more to life when his teenage daughter wanders into his life - and making it seem fresh and vital and new. The series wouldn't work without the soulfulness Polaha brings to his role, and he manages to make Baze both understandable as kind of a lout and sympathetic as a guy who's trying to figure out what's next and has been for over a decade.
I've said often in this space that the best TV series create whole worlds they take place in. I often have a sense of if a TV series is going to be something I'm going to enjoy or something I'm mostly going to shrug off in the pilot, based entirely on whether or not the series is suggesting that it has room to expand, places to visit in future episodes and seasons. For whatever faults it has, Life Unexpected is definitely taking its time to build a world for itself, dropping in on the friends Lux has left behind to move up to a life of privilege with her mom or hanging out with Baze's slacker friends or seeing just where Baze and Cate came from and how that made them who they are. Life Unexpected treats all of these characters with warmth and generosity. It gives all of them at least one or two good jokes to make. It creates a world where no one is wholly good or bad but people are just trying to do what's best to get through to another day. Life Unexpected has its faults in these first three episodes, but they mostly pale compared to the fact that the show is trying to get back to that warm, earnest vision of an America where everybody takes care of each other the networks mostly left behind when The WB ceased to be.
- For a while, the X in Unexpected was capitalized, so the title of the show spelled out LUX, secretly. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and The CW dropped that plan, which is nice. I don't think I could have defended the show if that had still been the case.
- Grade's cumulative. I'd probably give tonight's and next week's B's, then give the one two weeks from tonight a B+.
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