Back when Life Unexpected premiered in January, Todd rejected the comparisons to Gilmore Girls and said the foster-kid-reunites-with-fuckup-parents dramedy was more like Everwood, what with all the lovable earnestness and unrealistic, heart-on-sleeve monologues.
He pegged it exactly right - Everwood was a heavier show, tackling unrealistic amounts of weighty issues like HIV and abortion and kids in comas and cancer and all that shit. But Life Unexpected has a lot of the same hallmarks. Characters have teary conversations about their feelings and why they never learned to say "I love you." Someone seems to be furious with someone every week, but they forgive them quickly, only to get furious at someone else. And everyone has problems, acres of problems, that prevent them from behaving like normal, rational human beings.
In short, it's a WB show. That network is no longer with us, although its ghosts haunt us still (hello, Kerr Smith! What's up, Shiri Appleby!). But Life Unexpected is a throwback to the late-90s/early aughts, when shows aimed at young adults weren't about power-suited douchebags who behave more like property moguls than teenagers. Instead they was about super-sensitive douchebags for whom having sex required six episodes of conversation. I'm not saying it was better, just different.
Being fair, Life Unexpected has some stuff really going for it, mostly Brittany Robertson, who's been an utter revelation as Lux, the wincingly-named 16-year-old who was birthed after an ill-advised prom romp between shrill nerd Cate and the lazily handsome, also wincingly-named, "Baze" (Kristoffer Polaha). In Monday's finale she showed off what's so great about both her character and her performance: Lux is knowing, but not overly precocious; she's supportive of her emotionally stunted parents and their stupid decisions, but she's still pretty vulnerable, under a thick skin.
In "Love Unexpected," Lux tries to nudge her dad into publicly admitting that he's in love with Cate (Appleby), before she gets married to her sweet but dull radio-host partner boyfriend Ryan (Smith). I know, I hear you groaning, we've all seen that cliffhanger plot a million times before. And I'm sad to say Life Unexpected checked every box as it trudged towards the inevitable conclusion. The wedding is Cate gets cold feet! Baze is emboldened! Even Ryan seems to see the writing on the wall! But then Baze chickens out, and tells Cate there's nothing going on, so the wedding goes forward…and then Baze plucks up his courage and storms through the church doors, but it's too late.
The plotting of the show can be pretty headache-inducing, following formulas that should have been put out to pasture long ago. For weeks after the pilot episode, we were treated to Lux getting into a fight with one of her parents, moving out and threatening to run off, until the threat just didn't mean anything anymore. Thankfully, after a while she decided to accept, rather than suffer, her parents' many flaws — the show has since had more success plumbing typical teen issues, like whether she should date the motorcycle-riding bad boy or the mop-headed golden quarterback.
At this point, Life Unexpected's problems really lie with the parents. As Baze, Polaha is charming enough that you forgive the character's shortcomings. But Appleby can be really tough to take as the manic Cate, who rattles between love and derision for Baze and is then horrified when her boring boyfriend leaves her because she's so annoying (and she had sex with Baze). A lot of reasons are thrown up for why Cate is so irritating: she was a loser in high school, her mom's a drunk (in a cute WB way, not a scary real-life way) and her dad abandoned the family. But when someone's this annoying and truly dysfunctional on a cheesy TV show, it's tough to feel bad for them.
Baze has just as many parent issues and this week he dumped on his jerky dad for being too distant, saying it's the root of all his problems. That concept is pretty rote and when his dad later showed up to say he loved him, it was Good Will Hunting levels of shmaltz, but because Polaha's an engaging actor and the character remains likable, you don't mind so much, and indeed you're rooting for him to depose Ryan and stop the wedding, even though most likely him embarking on a relationship with his baby mama would be an epic, epic disaster.
Lux seemed to realize as much, telling Cate that Baze would always be a fuck-up and she was wrong for thinking they could make it work. I'm sure that Baze's change of heart at the last minute will be plumbed further in season two (if the show gets picked up) and the will-they-won't-they romance will never truly die. But I'd like to see it die. Life Unexpected would be a hell of a lot more interesting to me if it just concentrated on the concept of the weird family unit: Cate + Ryan, Cate + Baze, Lux's relationship with all three, their weirdo relatives (all of whom were on fine form at the wedding) and their many trials and tribulations.
But Life Unexpected, being a WB show, is convinced that it needs the hook of the love triangle to keep viewers watching. It hasn't learned from its antecedents, like Gilmore Girls, which was felled by constantly trying to disrupt Luke & Lorelai's romance, usually by putting Christopher in the way; or Felicty, where she never could decide between Ben and Noel until none of us fucking cared anymore; or Everwood, which threw up ever more complicated and insane reasons for Empham and Amy not to be together.
I hope the Life Unexpected gets renewed, because there are definite signs of real, creative life here. But if it does make it, I also hope the writers put some of those WB plot templates on ice and shoot for something different.