Season Finale: Life Unexpected – “Love Unexpected”

“Love Unexpected”

April 12th, 2010

“It’s not having feelings for two people that matters; it’s what you choose to do about them.”

I was very ready to write a very sarcastic opening to this review: the gall of series creator Liz Tigelaar to contend that the love between Baze and Cate, or the love between any of these characters, was unexpected. The show wears its heart on its sleeve, so we knew from the beginning that Cate and Baze shared a connection, and there were more than enough hints towards it being something more than just sexual tension along the way to make this finale all about Team Baze vs. Team Ryan in some circles.

I still think the title is a bit of an oxymoron (in that we went into this finale very much expecting something at least marginally sappy, if not majorly sappy), but “Love Unexpected” ends up working extremely well by avoiding, or more accurately dancing around, the “love triangle” on the surface. The surprise, in many ways, is that the show manages to confirm rather than tear apart its various definitions of love while playing on the tension surrounding cold feet and unspoken attractions. Despite what one would call a thrilling conclusion, one that was most certainly expected, the show uses it to reinforce notions of family, self-empowerment, and tragedy in a scene that is endlessly complicated but which doesn’t feel like it over-complicates the show’s message.

It’s a delicate balance, but “Love Unexpected” manages to find a middle ground between a romantic fairytale and a frank depiction of humans being human, as characters make choices inspired by fantasy but grounded in reality – if this show is robbed of a deserved second season, it had absolutely nothing to do with the show living up to its creative potential.

I don’t want to suggest that “Love Unexpected” was in any way a perfect episode. To some degree, parts of the big wedding scenes played against the series’ strengths, pushing it towards large group scenes which it tends to overplay (I find Lux’s mother to be particularly problematic in this way). The Rehearsal Dinner was a fine example of this: while I’m sure it was fun to shoot, we hadn’t met Ryan’s parents before, and Math’s “Opposites Attract” bit went on for just a little bit too long. I understand that it’s the finale, and that they wanted to give some of the characters a last hurrah of sorts, but this is a show that works best in small scenes shared between characters. When things start going wrong or becoming complicated in ways that are outside of the characters themselves, a character like Cate tends to overreact, and the normally shrill Cate nearly turns into Bridezilla.

The show just doesn’t play as well on that broad level, which makes sense: it’s tough to establish that sort of setup in only 13 episodes, especially when so many of those were either forced into “Pilot Repetition” or focused very exclusively on our family unit of sorts. With such a short order, a finale becomes about priorities: the young men in Lux’s life are absent, Abby ends up with food poisoning, and only one out of Math and Jamie makes an appearance. The show, whether for budget reasons or for story purposes, has sort of worked most often on a small scale, and that has played to Tigelaar’s aptitude for scripting honest and realistic conversation between her characters.

This show is all about change, about how Lux’s life changed when she went out on a limb to try to find her birth parents, and how Cate, Baze and Ryan have had to change their lives and reflect on how much they’ve changed as they adapt to her presence. The episode begins with a positive result of such change, Lux officially becoming Cate and Baze’s child for really the first time. As Ryan points out to Lux late in the episode, that is in some ways the end of her journey: she was playing the adult for so long, and now she’s finally the kid again. But for Cate and Baze, this process has forced to the surface some major insecurities as it relates to how much they’ve changed from their past, and this episode is about those two characters coming to terms with what it means to change, and what role things like love, honesty and family mean in that scenario. For both characters, this is an enormously complicated question: Cate admits that she’s been damaged goods for a long time, and Baze’s conversations with his father reveal the damage left from his own childhood and the consequences of extending that childhood into his adult life.

And yet, the most affecting scene of the entire finale involves neither character: yet again, “Saint Ryan” becomes the guy that you just can’t root against, telling Lux that he is willing to put this all on hold if she’s not comfortable, and that all he wants to do is be some part of this family regardless of whether or not he marries Cate. Yes, it’s a bit convenient that Ryan has divorced parents to that he can “relate” with Lux, but Kerr Smith really nails the emotion behind his speech, and it feels like a nice distillation of their unique (and underserved by the short season) relationship. It’s also the turning point in the episode’s momentum: each emotional conversation feeds into the next, the discussion before informing one character’s motivations. Lux hears Ryan’s impassioned plea and advises Cate to exercise her own agency in terms of valuing her fairytale love for Baze with her love for Ryan, just as Baze’s one-on-one with Math leads him to denying he has feelings for Cate later that night, while leads him to lash out at his father at the country club the next day. The episode wasn’t just a collection of random scenes, but rather intricately connected discussions that through realistic character behaviour managed to get at the series’ main themes.

And yes, it came down to a climactic moment where Baze rushes into the Church to stop the wedding, but that moment was more final than perhaps we expected – Cate makes a choice in that moment, kissing Ryan and spurning Baze, but watching Lux and Baze’s reactions you realize that it’s all about love. Cate chooses one love over another, Lux chooses the love of her unique family over the idealistic love of a perfect one, and Baze chose to go for love and ends up with nothing to show for it. I don’t think anyone could say that they believe anyone’s definition of love is wrong, or that anyone made a particularly bad decision, but it still led to some heartbreak, some empowerment, and some confusion that would lead to plenty of interesting drama in a second season.

Ultimately, I thought the “Corporate wants Ryan and Cate to sign a contract” side of things felt like the episode’s one completely unnecessary contrivance (I’ll buy the “Rehearsal Dinner at Baze’s” on budget alone), but it did offer a nice sort of warning to Dawn Ostroff and Co. While the show is probably in third position in the 8pm hour right now (behind Chuck and How I Met Your Mother), and as a critic I can say that it has moments that don’t quite come together (I still think Cate’s relative likeability compared to the other three leads is problematic), this is a show that has a whole lot of potential. And considering that I wouldn’t say that about every other show in The CW’s lineup, I really hope that the show is given the chance to see where these characters go next, and to continue unabashedly negotiating between different notions of love and family without feeling the need to turn up the drama to 11.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that this show’s quality was “unexpected,” as the cast has been pretty uniformly strong from the very beginning and the premise always held a fair deal of potential. However, I can say that I’m surprised I got to the point where I passed “critical appreciation” to something approaching attachment – here’s hoping that The CW feels the same way.

Cultural Observations

  • I was originally thinking that the episode was really overstuffed, but then I realized how many other elements were missing (like Bug and Jones) which would have been present on a show which shows less restraint (or are less restrained by budget, which could have been a factor).
  • I like Cynthia Stevenson, and I think she has a lot of fun as Cate’s mother, but I find the character to be a bit broad in most situations: however, here her backseat psychology called Cate out on her anxieties, and that sort of awareness is key to keeping the episode moving.
  • Okay, this really bugged me: I was under the impression that Cate was a total nerd in high school, so why did Math choose “Opposites Attract?” Or am I reading too much into the title of the song when I should be reading into the awesomeness that is MC Skat Cat.
  • As far as renewal prospects go, the show is performing pretty consistently – based on ratings it would seem to be pretty safe, but it doesn’t skew as young female as some of the network’s other shows, and it remains outside of the network’s admittedly slippery brand identity, so keep your fingers crossed.


Filed under Life Unexpected

3 responses to “Season Finale: Life Unexpected – “Love Unexpected”

  1. I’ve been watching this show with my Dad, it’s been one of the more pleasant winter surprises this year. We’ve both grown very attached to the characters, and were both “on the seat of our pants” watching this one, each declaring for an opposite outcome (him for Baze, me for Ryan). Both seemed possible, both had points going for them… but like you say, fairytale family or not, Ryan’s so great you just can’t root against him! 🙂

    I do hope the CW renews this! It’s funny, it’s endearing and in spite of being a fairy tale it often feels realistic (in the relationships). And hey! Maybe now that Cate’s feeling safer (as in not about to be abandoned) and ready to deal with her issues, she’ll be more likeable next season? Although personally I haven’t had a problem with the character.

    Great review btw, very insightful! 😉

  2. This episode was either going to make it or break it for me. All the back and forth between Ryan and Baze was very stressful, and only justifiable with the right ending (which it thankfully pulled off very well). This episode officially made me a fan because it actually showed me that the people behind it know what they’re doing. If the wedding would have been broken up or anything less than joyful, the whole first season would have been pointless (and, I feel, unnecessarily dramatic).

    And count me in as St. Ryan fan. That man can do no wrong. He’s the much needed adult, fully mature character on this show.

  3. Sam

    i felt like math telling baze to make the choice to let go of the soulmate sappiness and grow up summed up the very choice the show had to make for it to grow in a second season. i’m glad that’s the choice it looks like liz&co went with by having her marry ryan. the finale wasn’t perfect, but it really sets everything up for a second season that’s still fun, but deals with more complicated (and interesting!) character dynamics and relationships.

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