January 18th, 2010
When a network attempts to change its brand identity, it’s always an interesting balancing act. On the one hand, the network wants to be able to sell advertisers and viewers on the fact that they are new and exciting, charting a progressive path into the future. However, on the other hand, no network can entirely rebrand, so there will be remnants of the former identity kicking around both in order to provide a sense of stability for both advertisers and viewers alike.
Life Unexpected won’t be the last time I talk about this particular phenomenon this week (Hint: the other will be on Friday), but it’s definitely a show that hearkens back to The WB more than anything else in The CW’s lineup. It’s created a really interesting critical reaction to this show, where everyone points out how much it doesn’t fit the current CW brand and that, considering the critical opinion of said brand, it is better off for it. And I’m not going to deviate from this script: the show evokes Everwood and Gilmore Girls far more than Gossip Girl or Melrose Place, and I’m certainly not going to complain about that.
I do wonder, though, where the audience that watches a show as sweet and heartwarming as this one is currently located. I appreciate what the show has to offer, and I would certainly suggest that you check it out if The WB’s brand of charming drama series were up your alley, but I can’t help but wonder if the WB brand has become so stratified that the people who were silently sitting in their living rooms thinking to themselves “I wish there were shows like the WB used to have” have moved onto other networks (like ABC Family) and aren’t going to look past the network’s new brand.
I want to be wrong, though: I quite liked Life Unexpected, and I’d like to think shows like this could still succeed in this day and age.
I think that, to some degree, the idea that Life Unexpected doesn’t actually fit The CW’s brand is perhaps reaching too far: it does, after all, have both sex and discussion of sex, and it features both attractive thirtysomethings and a teenage girl, putting the show squarely into the CW’s core demographics in terms of giving them someone to relate to. However, what sets the show apart from something like One Tree Hill or 90210 is that all of its characters have a common goal in mind: growing up and taking responsibility (too late and too soon). These are effectively dirty words for the majority of CW shows (One Tree Hill likes to play with it on occasion, but it took them umpteen seasons to get there and it rarely lasts), so it makes Life Unexpected feel as if its motivation and premise are heading in an entirely different direction.
It’s not, after all, as if the show is particularly surprising: every heartstring it pulls is carefully choreographed, and by the time Lux ends up in the joint custody of her parents the show has hit every note one might expect. Of course her parents have unresolved sexual tension, and of course they fall into bed together, and of course Cate and her fiance reconcile in time to create a wonderfully awkward extended family. But the predictability speaks honestly to who these characters are, and Liz Tigelaar’s script shows a clear understanding of what each of those moments mean: while the idea that Cate has “been there” for Lux through her radio show is downright laughable, the idea that she is here for her now, when she needs her most of all, is not.
For Cate, it seems like Lux’s arrival comes at the worst possible time: she’s just starting to learn to love (again, groan, but stick with me), and she’s just gotten engaged, when the phone rings and it’s her high school one-night-stand. For Cate, the past is something she never wanted to hear from again, so for her daughter to suddenly surface right then and there seems like poor timing in every possible way. For Nate (Or Baze, if we prefer), meanwhile, she’s more obviously coming at what is a right time: managing and living above a bar in a building inherited from his father, Baze recognizes that he peaked in high school, and he very sweetly bonds with Lux over cheesy YouTube clips will full understanding of what a change she could bring to his life.
It’s one thing for us to be skeptical of how the show gets to the point of its premise: it’s a pilot, so there’s going to be shortcuts (like Ryan, Cate’s fiance, happening to raise points on their radio show that just happened to hit Cate’s buttons in regards to Lux’s existence). The real question is whether, when the show eventually goes for the emotional jugular, that we believe these people would take these actions. And I bought that Cate and Nate would both show up at her emancipation hearing even if I didn’t buy the judge’s rather convenient ruling, and I bought that the rhyming couple would (being two attractive people questioning their lives and sharing drinks over a mutual predicament) would end up in his apartment before the night was over because, by that point in the episode, they were starting to draw the connections between characters and their actions.
And the three leads do a might fine job of selling this, as Brittany Robertson (who is actually 19, but who is still mighty impressive), Shiri Appleby (who is playing remarkably close to her real age) and Kristoffer Polaha (who is great here, and who plays Carlton on Mad Men, which is awesome) all allow their characters to stop and soak all of this in even when the pilot as designed doesn’t really afford them that time. Perhaps my favourite moment in the episode is, rather than one of the big emotional ones, just Nate sitting at the computer with his daughter staring at her: it was so genuine that the lame “you have my eyes, I think” discussion that followed was totally believable, and it laid the foundation for a relationship I want to be able to see grow into the future.
The show is not, of course, devoid of drama: after all, that Cate and Baze (which I prefer because it avoids the rhyme) slept together is a secret just waiting to come out, and one has to presume there are logical parenting issues (such as discipline, for example) that will arise in the weeks ahead. However, the show has clearly indicated that these characters are “all on the same team” when it comes to moving forward, and the show has very clearly defined its comedy and drama in terms of the wacky hijinks and real world implications that will stem from this arrangement as opposed to any tension within the idea of the arrangement itself (at least not in normal episodes – surely by around the finale things will break down a bit). While the show could have easily forced Cate and Baze to be parents, and had them at odds in a tenuous joint custody agreement, the show just doesn’t want to write those characters, which is why everyone agrees that Lux is a good thing, even if one they never expected.
And while it may inspire puns, it’s a sweet premise that when I consider the sum of its parts I desire to keep watching.
- I was watching the show with my parents, somewhat forcefully after I correctly called this as a show my mother would quite enjoy. For the record, she ended up tallying three “Awwws.”
- I’m not allowed to suggest that this show makes me feel old, because most of you will throw things at me, but I will admit that when they talked about Lux being conceived to a song I actually recognized and lived through (although largely through Pop-up Video, which probably doesn’t count) it was a bit weird.
- Kerr Smith is the other “lead” of sorts that I didn’t mention, and I think he’s well cast here even if he’s sort of trapped in a tough position as the man standing in the way of Lux’s parents being together should the show tread that narrative path.
- I think the pilot’s biggest problem from a long-term story point of view is that they show so little of Lux’s normal life. Are we to believe that all she’s done is make her foster parents’ lives hell and listen to a radio show? The lack of friends, or social interactions with people her age, made sense with her desire to be emancipated and all that jazz, but it will be interesting to see how the show writes Lux going to school and finding her way in life beyond the interactions with her parents.