By: Aleks Chan
The pilot episode of LIFE UNEXPECTED is so unabashedly charming that I almost needed to make sure my media cabinet wasn’t grinning. This atypical new dramedy has little to do with The CW’s current breed of programming: there is nary a nude model, verklempt socialites cheering with champagne glasses, or forlorn vampires. It came out of the 2009 Upfronts buzzing with praise, most notably of which are the comparisons to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s late, great GILMORE GIRLS. I agree that this light, broadly appealing effort harkens back to The WB of yesteryear, where its young characters were often fully and complexly realized.
But the show I would really compare it to is JJ Abrams’ FELICITY: both feature a female lead with a mane of hair in a world so bizarre to them (in this case its being part of a family, however dysfunctional) that they travel listlessly in search of understanding – of themselves, what it means to be where they are in their lives and how those situations relate. And though creator Liz Tigelaar (who’s previously worked as a producer on BROTHERS & SISTERS and Abrams’ own WHAT ABOUT BRIAN) hasn’t shown any intention to ratchet the tension any higher than that of a romantic comedy, it remains promising.
Lux (Brittany Robertson, previously on CBS’ grossly misunderstood SWINGTOWN the a beleaguered teen next door) has bounced around foster homes her entire life, and on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, plans to do something about it. Plotting to become emancipated, she seeks out her birth parents who, like her, have managed to stay within the city limits of Portland, Ore. But upon discovering that they share a daughter, Baze (Kristoffer Polaha) – who lives above a bar in a building owned by his father – and Cate (Shiri Appleby) – a morning radio talk show host who happens to be romantically involved with her co-host (Kerr Smith) – show up at her court hearing and leave with shared custody.
Cate and Baze’s backstory is classic rom-com fodder: a one-time high school tryst turns procreational, their brief relationship ending with Cate giving up Lux, believing that she would be adopted. Polaha and Appleby’s chemistry is endearing – they convincingly convey a long-burning desire for each other. More enchanting though is dynamic between Baze and Lux, who quickly forge a realistic and welcoming father-daughter duo, rife with sarcasm, frustration, and adoration. But that relationship takes a backseat in the two subsequent episodes I previewed for a closer examination of Lux and her friends still stuck in foster care, whose interactions tend to gravitate to soapy melodrama. (As does meeting the grandparents and token irate/overly-attentive aunt in Episode 3, a trope I’d beg to know when it can finally be retired to the cliché scrapheap with Damien Rice’ “The Blower’s Daughter.”)
You might remember Appleby and Smith as stars of their own WB series, ROSWELL and DAWSON’S CREEK – Polaha has been a guest star on MAD MEN and was Judy Greer’s love interest in the short-lived ABC sitcom MISS GUIDED. All three of their characters aren’t especially well-defined, or even original: Appleby’s Cate fears commitment and has trust issues (and says silly things like, “I learned a long time ago that the only person you can trust is yourself!”) and Baze is the rebellious child of old, wasp-y money, taking his father’s building and turning it into a bar (“He said to do what I love, and I love to drink for free.”) How to fit Kerr Smith into the equation has proven tricky, so in these initial episodes, he’s used sparingly, if inefficiently.
The following weeks are not as strong or as charming as the pilot, which, oddly, is where it most resembles a classic WB show: the growing pains are noticeable, and until its producers narrow down what kind of show it wants to be (they seem to be leaning towards a lighter, less serious tone that I hope they abandon for a more varied approach), will be uneven. FELICITY didn’t get really good until its third season, and from what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t mind doing the same with this show. Grade: B