Life Unexpected – “Turtle Undefeated”

“Turtle Undefeated”

February 15th, 2010

Considering that Life Unexpected has been repeating its pilot pretty consistently since it began, I’m tempted to just repost my review of the pilot here and see if anyone notices the difference.

This seems harsh, and I really don’t mean that in a negative way: after all, I liked the pilot, so my willingness to repeat those thoughts indicates that I still believe them to be true. Similarly, Liz Tigelaar and Co. are repeating the pilot because it was a good pilot, and because the brand of sweetness that this type of story brings to the table is clearly what they’re trying to tap into.

However, because we know going into an episode how it is eventually going to end (with Lux struggling to straddle her old life and her new one, and Cate and Baze realizing they’re not perfect parents but they nonetheless fill important roles in Lux’s life), we’re sort of able to fill in the gaps more easily than might be advantageous for the show. Every time a character is faced with a difficult decision mid-episode, they’re definitely going to make the wrong choice, whereas if the same decision is presented towards the end of the episode they’re inevitably going to come around.

What the show lives or dies on, then, is whether the show that happens in between the initial setup and the inevitable sweetness is compelling enough to keep watching, with enough shades of something deeper than this nearly procedural structure that the show is operating under. And “Turtle Undefeated,” like most episodes before it, makes me glad that I didn’t just watch the beginning and the end of the episode and chalk it up as one more life lesson for everyone involved.

And yes, that’s praise.

I’m still anxious to see the show break out of its formula, but at this point I’ve accepted that the show isn’t in any rush to do so, leaving dangling plot threads (like the fact that Cate and Baze slept together between Ryan proposing and Cate accepting that proposal) left to tiny moments like Ryan briefly catching Cate comforting Baze in tonight’s episode. Similarly, the show sort of hints at developing plots for supporting characters (like Jamie’s attempts to flirt with Cate’s friend Annie last week serving as an interest subtext for their physical interactions this week), but it never goes through with it. However, because these elements are always present, the potential for the future remains: the show isn’t narrowing its universe so much as it is narrowing its perspective on that universe, which leaves the door open for Tigelaar to move beyond the three leads at some point in the future.

It’s helpful that the various leads are capable of playing every note they need to hit. Brittany Robertson was able to show us a side of Lux that just wants to belong with the cool kids and is willing to push things too far with a high school party, Shiri Appleby was able to sell us on a slightly intoxicated Cate trying to appear cooler to her daughter by playing Beer pong with 16-year olds, and Kristoffer Polaha is just as capable of selling Baze turning into his father as he is the slacker we primarily saw in the pilot. In an episode where all of the characters tried to live as the opposite of their real personality (or at least their most natural personality), the actors managed to sell the transformations as plausible without being truly possible, and that kind of execution makes a pretty tired story seem as emotional and heartfelt as the show is going for. I might be finding the repetitiveness a bit tiresome, but the performances are keeping things fresh, and deserve a lot of credit for maintaining the show’s momentum.

The little details are also what keeps me watching: turtle racing is ridiculous, and superfluous to the plot, and yet it was a lot of fun in a way that I need a show like this to be. If it always took itself seriously, I couldn’t possibly handle it, but there’s a light-heartedness about Open Bar that was able to keep the episode afloat. Similarly, I like the way they’ve drawn Baze’s father: it’s one big cliche, in that you knew he would bail them out of jail, but I didn’t know that he’d come back at the end, which does make the end particularly saccharine but also felt actually a bit unpredictable. It doesn’t mean that the show is able to keep rehashing the same story over and over again forever, but it does mean they’ve got some goodwill to keep them afloat in the process of finding their footing.

Cultural Observations

  • I’ll admit that the show is better off for evading the issue of the love triangle implied by the Pilot: it’s a complex situation that could be overbearing, whereas the parental stuff at least feels natural.
  • I liked how the turtle races weren’t actually a huge success, but rather just something fun that was enough of a distraction to keep Baze from going upstairs.
  • Honest question: who plays beer pong with ping pong paddles?
  • Logistical, and less serious, question: How did Lux carry a keg all the way up the stairs into Baze’s apartment?
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