“I Hear You, I See You”
September 14th, 2010
Life Unexpected and Parenthood have a lot in common, industrially speaking: while their thematic similarities don’t go beyond “family” being a central component of each, their most important connection is that they are both midseason shows which were renewed for a second season.
This is important because it means that they, compared with other sophomore series, didn’t get as much time to tell their stories. Without full 22-episode seasons, we never really got to see everything that Liz Tigelaar and Jason Katims had to offer, which makes these debuts especially important. We’re not as committed as we would have been after a “full” season, and therefore each series goes into its second year looking to prove that they are going to make the most of this opportunity and that we should continue watching.
I want to discuss the two series together because they take two very divergent paths (and because I’m short on time): while Life Unexpected presents entirely new scenarios which complicate the series’ existing premise, Parenthood seems entirely comfortable in the rhythms it developed last season. Neither decision is necessarily better than the other, but I do think that one premiere was more effective than the other as a result of their strategy.
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.
April 5th, 2010
While Life Unexpected is effectively a romantic story, as a young girl’s life struggles to find a family after being given up for adoption lead her back to the family she was meant to have, it doesn’t necessarily take place in a romantic world. There are times, of course, when the show steps towards the saccharine, and everything works out a little bit too easily, but Lux still went through a pretty hellish time in foster care (as we saw in last week’s episode), and I have always had faith that the show knows that what happened with Lux, Cate and Baze becoming a sort of family isn’t something that can happen every day.
“Father Unfigured” is the show dealing with that particularly reality, using Cate’s father (who she presumed abandoned the family) as a test to gauge the probability of this sort of situation ever happening again. And as I expected, it is very clear that the show’s premise is more than a bit romantic, but it’s a romanticism that manifests itself as a legitimate connection between these three human beings as opposed to some sort of simple or traditional notion of love. Essentially, Life Unexpected is like the television drama version of Lilo & Stitch, where “family” has its own unique meaning that no other family could entirely understand but which nonetheless connects with audiences.
The show often forces this “family” through a few more hoops than may be ideal in order to get to that stage, but they’ve nicely set things up heading into next week’s finale.
March 29th, 2010
Mark it on your calendars, ladies and gentlemen: today is the day when Life Unexpected finally stopped showing its basic premise in its “Previously on Life Unexpected” clip package.
It’s a momentous occasion, really, a sign that the show might be ready to grow beyond that premise to become something which goes beyond its initial dramatic potential. This is not to say that that initial potential has resulted in a weak television series, as I’ve found the show to be a fun and effective piece of drama thus far in its first season. The problem, though, is that we knew that from the beginning: the show has showed signs of wanting to evolve, but it’s always sort of reverted back to the same drama over and over again to its detriment.
“Storm Weathered” does not signal an entirely new show, and the show somewhat returns to the status quo of showcestual tensions which threaten to explode at any moment, but it does signal that we are at least at the point where the drama is no longer contingent on the pilot, and that the show has the opportunity (if still not the willingness) to move on.
February 22nd, 2010
Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I’m pretty sure that something actually happened on Life Unexpected tonight.
Sure, the plot of “Truth Unrevealed” was just a delayed payoff from the pilot, so there wasn’t actually anything revealing – fitting, considering the title – about the episode, but it was the first story that felt like it went beyond the awkwardness surrounding Lux’s arrival in order to answer the question of “what next?” Yes, it didn’t particularly take the story very far in that direction, and it threw out a number of anvils on its way to its conclusion, but that conclusion feels like something that is actually going to change the trajectory of these characters, rather than just a rumination on a particular facet of having being a parent foisted on you.
And that is, if not particularly subtle, at least more revealing and more significant than some of the season’s early episodes.
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.
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.
January 25th, 2010
Alan Sepinwall has a good review of this week’s second episode of Life Unexpected where he discusses the curse that is the never-ending pilot, where a network puts pressure on a show to restate/revisit its premise in early episodes in order to hook in new viewers (like, for instance, those who tuned in tonight when they found out the CBS comedies were in repeats). He points out that, at TCA, Liz Tigelaar argued this actually made sense for this show, as a situation this complicated would actually be quite unstable, and it would be unrealistic for it not to in some way repeat the initial tension we saw in week one.
I think she’s right, but I think that “Home Inspected” also manages to find a couple of intelligent shortcuts to navigate its way through the challenges of this process. I wouldn’t argue that the episode is perfect, or that some of those shortcuts aren’t a bit overstated/melodramatic, but the episode manages to maintain the show’s pilot momentum even in its redundancy, which is something any show in its position should strive for.
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.