Be what you want to be,
If you ever turn around, you’ll see me.
— The Weepies, “Can’t Go Back Now”
“The state’s not paying me enough to deal with this.” So says the Foster Mom at the start of Life Unexpected. And yes, she is a very bad Foster Mom. In her one and only scene, she looks frazzled and frustrated in her kitchen, annoyed that 15-year-old, Lux (Brittany Robertson) has complained about a younger brother. Lux fumes, “You would think, with your last name actually being ‘Foster,’ you’d be somewhat equipped to be a foster parent.”
Yes, Lux is righteously frustrated and intellectually superior, a 15-year-old on TV with reason to disrespect Mrs. Foster. Having endured seven foster homes over her brief lifetime — with “Scope-drinking moms and creepy dads that try to hit on me” — Lux wants out: she announces that in two days, when she turns 16, she’s going to court in search of legal “emancipation.” Mrs. Foster has nothing to say. Cut.
Turns out that a foster mom named Foster is not the only coincidence in Lux’s life. Her research in preparation for her upcoming birthday reveals that not only can she achieve her freedom with a birth parent’s signature, but also that both of them still live in Portland, where she also lives. Dad is Baze (Kristoffer Polaha), introduced as he rolls out of bed in his leopard-print undies, explaining to his high school teacher girlfriend (Brittney Irvin) why he lives in an apartment over the bar he owns (“My dad said to do what I love and I love to drink for free”). When Lux arrives on his doorstep (“I’m kind of comprised of half your gene pool”), he’s surprised but also not, as he remembers the one-prom-night stand he shared with her mom, Cate (Shiri Appleby). The gimmick here is that Cate and Baze haven’t spoken since then, when he believed she “took care of it.” Now that they both know they’re parents, they have to think about what it means to be parents.
It’s not by accident that Cate is played by Appleby, once a star in the teen melodrama Roswell (on which Polaha guest-starred), or that her current fiancé and partner on a radio talk show, Ryan, is played by Dawson’s alum Kerr Smith. Ryan wants Cate to take the next step with him, but she’s apprehensive (and who wouldn’t be, with a proposal premised on her “biological clock”: “Where is that desire,” he asks, “to make more than ramen noodles and dry toast?”). As those “kids who have kids” you’ve heard about, these ostensible adults must face their responsibilities, a plot point complicated by their continuing tendency to act like kids. “I learned it really early on,” Cate says into her mic at work, where she likes to work out her life questions on air. “The only person you can depend on in this world is yourself. If you believe anything else, you’re just setting yourself up for heartbreak.”
Cate’s re-education is hastened when a judge decides the jobless and homeless Lux cannot be emancipated, but instead will be assigned to her parents’ joint custody. Baz and Cate both welcome and dread this opportunity to be grown-ups, acting out in predictable ways. Lux helps Cate along, by revealing that she has in fact been listening to her on the radio for years. “When everything else in my life kept changing,” Lux says, “I could count on you every day.” Beyond just “being there,” according to Lux, Cate also served as a role model. “People are so scared to tell the truth. Instead, they’re like, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all work out.’ You just put it all out there. You say the truth.”
Of course, Cate’s not so honest as her daughter imagines, and so the show sets up for revelations and reaffirmations, betrayals and confessions. Being a series on The CW, Life Unexpected offers mostly what’s expected, with alt-rocky song cues (Bright Eyes’ “First Day of My Life”) and pop-topical references: Baze and Lux bond over a shared affection for the YouTube clips featuring Christian the lion; Ryan loves that Cate “eats Cookie Crisps for breakfast,” and — anticipating the obvious comparisons — calls her “Juno” and “Jamie Lynn.” The connections are sudden, relationships shallow, and dialogue glib. And in the end, the Weepies tell us, “The only steps that matter are the ones you take all by yourself.”