The Case for Saving Life Unexpected
May 14th, 2010
This year, it seems like everything is getting renewed before I can talk about saving it.
Upfronts season is usually about sweating it out until the eleventh hour waiting to see if your favourite shows are going to get canceled, which means it’s a good opportunity to write pieces about why they deserve a second/third/fourth/etc. season. Last year it was NBC’s Chuck, but this year the show has been a safe bet for renewal for months and officially got the pick up earlier tonight, which is good (as I like the show) but considerably less exciting.
One show I was ready to write about was Human Target, one of very few “bubble” shows that I watched and was quite passionate about continuing. I was going to talk about how the show had a strong season finale (which I was late watching and never blogged about), and how there’s a lot of potential in both the premise and the cast, and I was going to lecture FOX on how they need to show faith in series with that sort of potential when they have Bones in their lineup holding its own on Thursdays despite early struggles. However, FOX took all the wind out of my sails by, you know, picking up Human Target without much fanfare earlier in the week.
Perhaps it’s for the best, though, as I can focus on the one bubble show that I’d say I’d be legitimately angry to see canceled early next week. It isn’t that Life Unexpected is my favourite show on television, or even that it had a particularly spectacular first season (it was good, not great); rather, it’s that it’s a young show with a strong cast that grew beyond its premise to become a solid drama series, and it has a great deal of creative and commercial potential yet untapped. And while The CW has been trapped within an identity crisis since its inception, that’s no excuse to turn away a show with the potential to grow into something which complements their brand just so that they can focus on “hype.”
The CW doesn’t need hype at this point, they need something capable of being fresh and standing out from their lineup marked by vapidity, nostalgia marketed to teenagers, and genre programs being run into the ground (exceptions made for Vampire Diaries and Supernatural within this description of their lineup). Life Unexpected is that show, and I really hope they come around to this fact before they make the same mistake they made last year.
Last year, if you remember, the network canceled Privileged, which was actually remarkably similar to Life Unexpected: both focus on teen girls (the network’s target demographic) while telling stories about an older generation, and both shows feature some fairly substantial issues surrounding parenting or the lack thereof. They also have something else in common, which is lower ratings in The CW’s target demographics than shows like Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill. For Privileged, this led to the show’s cancellation, which wasn’t the worst loss in the world (the show was a bit all over the place at times) but which indicated the direction the network was heading in with its brand identity (choosing the Melrose Place remake over the series).
However, Melrose Place bombed, and now with Life Unexpected the network has a chance for a do-over. I’m not going to go through and list reasons for the show to return, because I really don’t think it’s that simple: while all of the performances have been good, and the show’s finale did a great job at avoiding the traditional dramatic cliffhangers while still creating tension which will carryover into next year, the show deserves to return because of the abstract potential which lies in its premise. The show spent a lot of this season checking off boxes, going through logical stories that would emerge from the story of a daughter, given up for adoption, getting the birth parents she never had and the conflict which ensues. By the end of the season, rather than feeling like they’d run out of stories, it seemed like they had evolved beyond the initial struggles of Lux, Cate and Baze feeling their way through the awkwardness of it all. The conclusion didn’t introduce some new character, or reveal some sort of shocking twist that shook the show to its very foundation: rather, it made the argument that what we’ve seen so far is the show’s foundation, and gave us a hint at the sort of complex interpersonal storylines the show is capable of telling in the seasons ahead.
A good show shouldn’t feel like it has to reinvent itself, or present itself as a reinvention of another series, to be considered buzzworthy. One Tree Hill, which has already been “rescued” from cancellation once or twice before through gimmicks like a leap forward in time, has had seven seasons, and its potential to grow creatively is more or less nil. The chances of someone jumping on the One Tree Hill bandwagon at this point is extremely unlikely, and yet The CW is the kind of network who would keep a show like that around because it’s familiar; Smallville’s ratings have been abysmal, but the show is getting a tenth season despite having to constantly reinvent itself to give the appearance of freshness. The show renewed 90210 not because its ratings are strong (they’re lower than Life Unexpected, albeit with tougher competition) but because they don’t want to admit defeat on their plans to reinvent the 90s primetime soap opera for a new audience. They’re a network with fetishizes the new and yet refuses to let go of the old, resulting in a lineup filled with series which have been taken apart and haphazardly reassembled into Frankenstein monsters that lurch their way through primetime with no signs of life.
Life Unexpected, fitting considering the title, is full of life: regardless of whether that life perfectly fits The CW’s brand (which is impossible considering how scattered that brand has become), and regardless of whether the show’s demographic ratings were up to par with some of the network’s other series (which isn’t surprising considering the maturity the show demonstrated), the show feels like it has earned the opportunity to use its momentum to tell more stories with these characters. While I know that there are various other factors which indicate whether a series will be renewed, there comes a point where a network shows enough contempt for good television that I’ll throw my knowledge of economics out the window and go on blind appreciation.
It’s not my favourite show on television, and it may never reach the heights of Gilmore Girls or Everwood, but if The CW cancels Life Unexpected now they will be spitting in the face of a show which has the potential to grow into something quite spectacular in the years ahead. And while I’m not a 15-year old girl, and while my tiny corner of the world of television criticism doesn’t have any sort of impact, I feel like it nonetheless needs to be said that there would be no larger disservice in the world of television should The CW make this critical, and criminal, error and waste Life Unexpected’s potential before it ever really had a chance to show it.
[Life Unexpected’s fate will be decided sometime between now and May 20th, when The CW will announce their full schedule. In this age of leaks, though, chances are it will break earlier rather than later, so stay tuned to Twitter.]