February 8th, 2010
Ahead of the show’s premiere, Liz Tigelaar warned that Life Unexpected was going to suffer from “Pilot-itis,” in that most of its early episodes would play as restatements of the show’s premise in order to appeal to potential new viewers who might be tuning in for the first time. Her argument was that, while it’s a bit frustrating in that some viewers could get impatient, it at least makes creative sense in this instance: considering the complexity of the premise, and the emotions tangled up between these characters, the “plot” would continue to have an impact beyond a single hour. In fact, it might have been more problematic if the show had moved on too quickly without first plumbing the depths of the complications at play here.
The problem is that, with “Bong Intercepted,” we’re reaching that point where the show is staging some engaging scenes but keeps coming to the same conclusion, and the premise is starting to wear extremely thin. It’s job has been done: the show has some engaging characters, and I want to be able to see them grow and move on. Instead, the show is hitting the same beats over and over again, proving itself capable of creating some interesting dynamics but wasting them on stories that are doing little to help the show moving forward.
There’s a couple of things here that signal some momentum, but for the most part things are pretty darn predictable rather than unexpected around these here parts.
The biggest problem with the constant restatement of the show’s premise is that its longevity differs depending on who is involved. I would argue that for Cate and Baze, the story has a fair bit of longevity: of course it’s going to be tough for them to become parents out of nowhere, and of course much of their drama will revolve around this sudden change in their lives that threatens to disrupt their current existence. Their narratives, at this point, are about whether they are able to prove to themselves that they’ve evolved since high school, especially for Baze: while it make him seem a little bit daft to need to have it shown to him each and every week that he needs to be redeemed by this experience, that redemption is compelling enough that such reminders don’t feel overdone. Similarly, working Lux into her life has been a real challenge for Cate, and it makes sense that she would struggle with the idea, and that it would take until Episode Four for her to put her foot down and really force Lux to realize how hard she’s trying at this.
No, the problem is with Lux, who unlike her parents has things pretty good right now, all things told. Every time that Lux has to revert back to resentment and anger, it feels like the show is leaning too heavily on her dark past. Part of what makes Lux compelling is that she has survived, even thrived, despite of that past, and while reconciling her new life and her old life (like her friends) makes sense, this week felt like the character was just a bit too one-dimensional. There are points where it feels as if Lux only exists in terms of the impact on Lux and Baze’s life, and every episode that paints such a manipulative and one-dimensional image of her childhood (here represented by the journal entry about Santa Claus bringing her new parents) will only further weaken the character’s individual identity.
Sharon Ross argued over at Antenna over the weekend that one of the show’s problem is its fairly one-dimensional glimpse into the Foster Care system, and I think that’s the part of its premise which feels as if it hasn’t evolved in the least. We’re seeing changes with Cate and Baze, but we’re not seeing them with Lux, and when she starts to engage with the reasons for this lack of evolution the story shifts the impact to the adult characters. There was some material here with Lux and the Bong Lamp and all, as her potential new friends turned her down, but her chumminess with them felt quite distant from the Lux we saw in the pilot, and yet we haven’t really seen the character change in any way over that time period. It seems as if Lux exists to teach her parents a lesson more than as a human being, and so long as she’s defined by a fairly one-dimensional childhood, and so long as that remains a major focus, and as long as her life is one big puppet show where she reacts to Cate’s actions rather than acting on her own, the character and the show can’t truly come into their own.
All of this said, I thought there were a number of good elements in the episode, independent from the pilot repetition. I knew Erin Karpluk (Being Erica) was arriving sooner rather than later, but her Alice seems like a fun little recurring character, and her input on the radio show and during the event made for a nice extension of the Radio Show universe, especially when dealing with the “outing.” And that outing, as well, was a good step in a new direction: the idea of keeping their relationship secret was pretty ridiculous to begin with, and getting rid of that particular element felt timely. There were also a number of nice scenes in the episode, like Matt mentoring Lux on the bench at the end, or Cate’s ultimatum to Lux, or Baze’s scene with Lux as they’re both unable to go to sleep. It’s like the show is forced into repeating the pilot, but is simultaneously going out of their way to say that, once they’re set free, they’re going to blow the roof off the joint with an engaging ensemble cast that can work in a number of different pairings.
I’m with Sharon that the show has yet to live up to its potential, but Tigelaar’s warning had me prepared for these types of issues. The show is still testing out its premise, and perhaps that extra time will help them solve some of the issues that Sharon finds concerning…in the long term. In the short term, the show has no control over what questions it asks, but the answers they are choosing are a frustrating but intriguing bunch, and how they’re delivering those answers shows more than enough potential for me to stick around despite some occasionally bumpy spots along the road.
- In terms of the show’s tone, it’s clear they’re going for something fairly comic with something like Baze and Cate’s little back-and-forth battle over the bar location. For me, this works with the more melodramatic stuff because the history between them sells it, but another factor of the repeating pilot is that the same efforts to capture all of the show’s tones in a single episode remains throughout.
- The idea of a big chain bar across the street from Open Bar has some interesting potential, especially if it has a particularly sleazy owner, but I don’t know how the show, once it finds its focus, will be interested that much in the operations of Baze’s livelihood.
- Maybe it’s just me, but couldn’t Lux have played the “I didn’t know it was drug paraphernalia” card? She’s new to the school, the principal wasn’t aware of her entire story, and from what we saw in the past she’s not one to take these situations lightly. For her to just “not care” about the situation seemed too convenient to transition the story into a Cate one, so I hope the show doesn’t feel quite as obliged to force Lux stories into Cate/Baze stories in the future.