Life Unexpected: The CW’s Unexpectedly Excellent Drama

To understand why the new CW series Life Unexpected is such a pleasant surprise, one has to consider both the long string of successful character-driven family dramas created by the earlier WB and the shorter string of unsuccessful and persistently disappointing teen-oriented dramas created by the CW, the successor network to both the WB and UPN.

Back before the CW, the WB’s many family dramas were staple viewing for viewers who preferred relationship-driven drama over reality TV and police procedurals. At the heart of shows like Seventh Heaven, Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, Angel, Charmed, Popular, Roswell, Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and Everwood was a focus on relationships and families, even if some of the families were chosen rather than biological (family was at the heart of both Buffy and Angel, though few characters were biologically-related to one another). Although targeted at a younger demographic, these shows also appealed to adults. Some shows may have had a stronger appeal to adults than others (Buffy, Gilmore Girls, Everwood), but all of these shows handled relationships with sufficient intelligence to appeal to more than just teen girls. Even a teen drama like Dawson’s Creek had more than its fair share of adult viewers.

Things have changed considerably with the merger of the WB and UPN. A major clue to things to come came when the CW chose to retain for their freshman schedule the poorly regarded One Tree Hill, which was aimed at teens, rather than the more critically acclaimed and adult-friendly Everwood. The shows that have been created specifically for the CW have, like the shows of the WB, been focused on a teen viewership, but in a way that alienates or excludes many or most adults. Series like Gossip Girl, 90210, and Melrose Place feel like dumbed-down versions of the WB’s shows, though calling their shows dumbed-down is an insult to dummies. Even Gossip Girl, which is far and away the most successful of the shows previously created for the CW (at least in terms of buzz, if not actual viewers), increasingly feels like TV for those suffering from ADHD, with story arcs lasting two or three weeks at the most, while The Vampire Diaries, unlike Buffy and Angel, has little appeal to those who aren’t already dedicated fans of vampire shows (Buffy is my all time favorite show, despite my general dislike of vampire series).

Life Unexpected is the first show developed for the CW that has some of the appeal of WB shows like Everwood and Gilmore Girls, though it isn’t precisely like either. The show’s premise provides an interesting twist on earlier family dramas: Lux (played by Swingtown’s Brittany Robertson), is a teen-aged girl who is tired of being from one foster home to another, goes to court to sue for emancipation. To do so she needs signatures from her birth parents, neither of whom she has never met. The series begins with Lux seeking them out. Nate (played by Kristoffer Polaha) runs a bar and is unaware that he even had a daughter. Cate Cassiday (Shiri Appleby, who starred on the WB SF series Roswell) is a local Portland early morning radio jock to whose show Lux listens and who had long thought that the daughter she had given birth to when she was Lux’s age had been adopted to a good home. Although both of them sign Lux’s emancipation papers, they unexpectedly find themselves actual parents when the judge refuses to grant Lux’s request and remands her to their joint custody. Hence the title of the show.

The show has a number of things going for it. First, there have been surprisingly few new character-driven family dramas in recent years (although Jason Katims’s Parenthood debuts in March on NBC and looks promising, starring the great Lauren Graham, who took over when Maura Tierney dropped out to deal with health problems), so this answers a real need for TV viewers. The last first-rate series in this vein was Brothers and Sisters, which has been in a rut for a while and has become increasingly formulaic (how many more chaotic Walker dinners or multi-party cell phone conversations can a poor viewer abide?) Life Unexpected has definite appeal to fans of shows like Felicity and Everwood.

Even better, the show has a fresh premise with some nice twists. The story of a young girl and two adults suddenly discovering that they are a family is a compelling one, even though from the first episode certain inevitabilities are built into the show. For instance, even though Cate is engaged to be married, we all know that that their engagement is doomed and that eventually Nate and Cate will rekindle their high school romance, brief though it was (just long enough to conceive Lux). Even if this doesn’t happen, it will be the tease for seasons (and hopefully there will be seasons) to come. We also know that they will become a family in reality and not just on paper. None of this is a criticism of the show, but an acknowledgment of the ritualistic elements that underlie most genre series. The fun lies in seeing how they will all get where we all assume they are going. Setting the show in Portland (though the series shoots primarily in Vancouver) is another nice innovation.

There is also an appealing fairy tale element built into the show. Although it is tough to imagine any kid as cute as Lux being bounced around the foster system, the notion of a kid with several years of heartbreak suddenly meeting her birth parents, both of whom are actually pretty cool (Lux of course doesn’t regard them as cool, but we viewers know better), is one that only a curmudgeon could hate.

Another strength is that the main three characters are portrayed by some appealing actors. You do have to suspend a tiny bit of disbelief that Brittany Robertson could be the daughter of Shiri Appleby. Their twelve-year age difference renders their biological relationship unlikely, but they interact well and it is easy to accept them as mother and daughter. We enjoy seeing Lux and Cate onscreen together and can buy into the fantasy of their building lives together. This holds just as true of Lux and Nate or Nate and Cate.

My one major concern at this point is that the supporting cast isn’t as strong as the three leads. Nate’s father is a particularly unlikable character (though hopefully writers can make him less of the stereotypical stern father as the show proceeds) and Lux’s boyfriend Bug (is it possible to like a character named Bug?) feels particularly disposable. Nate’s friends at the bar don’t stand out at all. Shows cannot usually survive exclusively on the strength of the primary actors; a strong ensemble is needed, and right now I’m not confident that Life has that ensemble. Hopefully they can tweak it as it goes along. There are some opportunities for character expansion. Keegan Connor Tracy is an actress I’ve enjoyed over the years and she turns up in all of the Vancouver shows eventually (she most recently had a small but key role as an acolyte of the Gaius Baltar cult in Battlestar Galactica). She has been introduced as one of the managers at the radio station where Cate works and hopefully will be a recurring character. And Cynthia Stevenson, an actress many will know from Men in Trees (she played the local sheriff) and Dead Like Me (where she played the main character’s mother), had a nice debut as Cate’s delightfully gauche mother. But the supporting cast by and large is in need of some upgrading.

It is too soon to know for certain that Life Unexpected is going to be a good show, but all signs at the moment are that this may be the best family drama since the debut of Brothers and Sisters. It may also be the most promising series yet created by the CW. Certainly it is the first series that can invite comparison to the best dramas produced by the WB and the first ray of hope that the CW may be maturing into a more interesting network.