Reflections on the finale of The CW’s ‘Life Unexpected’

01.18.11 7 years ago 101 Comments

The CW

It’s my fault more than hers, but Liz Tigelaar fooled me. 

When I watched the first few episodes of “Life Unexpected” last spring, I saw a show that was very much in the mode of the old WB. Yes, there were some very rough edges to the newly developing relationship between Lux (Britt Robertson), Cate (Shiri Appleby) and Baze (Kristoffer Polaha). Yes, the characters seemed to make an awful lot of preventable mistakes and they seemed to be spending an awful lot of time lying to each other for no good reason. But the show’s core appeared to be a sentimental, mushy warm-heartedness in the vein of a “Gilmore Girls” or an “Everwood.” Tigelaar reinforced that feeling with a bubbly and effusive Television Critics Association press tour panel for the show. 
Either I was fooled, or I misread the show “Life Unexpected” always intended to be. And I was so disoriented that I watched every episode of the rest of the series run somewhat on edge, uncertain if the show was failing on my terms (not its fault) or struggling, with only occasional bursts of clarity, to succeed on its own terms (somewhat its fault).
On Tuesday (Jan. 18) night, a show about how life is messy and unpredictable and how no happy ending or pat conclusion can be arrived at without ugly, emotional struggle recognized that it was facing cancellation and decided to cut off the misery with 30 minutes to go in its two-hour finale, deliver three “This is the subtext of what I’ve been saying for 20+ episodes” conversations and then skipped forward two years to a series of happy endings that made no sense and didn’t need to make any sense because they were meant only to leave viewers with warm-fuzzies and not to stand up to any rational logic or internal logic. 
Nobody at The CW wants to call “Life Unexpected” cancelled and the finale was only being referred to as a “season finale,” but after the way things concluded, who could possibly want “Life Unexpected” to return next season? I certainly don’t. If you liked the finale, you’re not going to get a more coddling series finale than that. And if you hated the finale, the show probably betrayed everything you cared about in the first place.
Some additional thoughts on the “Life Unexpected” finale after the break…
As I said, my initial expectations for “Life Unexpected” were the biggest problem at all, a problem that Liz Tigelaar and the show itself cannot be blamed for. I figured, “Hey look, the show begins with this unconventional family getting together and from here, it’s going to be about the somewhat bumpy road they have to travel to get things right.” My assumption was that the worst was behind Lux and Baz and Cate and that whatever complications were still ahead of them, the show’s theme would be the restoration of an unorthodox order, rather than ever increasing chaos and entropy.
We were half-way through the first season when I realized that “Life Unexpected” was a show about three or four (if you include Kerr Smith’s Ryan, which the writers only occasionally did) people who were almost pathologically self-destructive. I’ve watched more than my share of teen soaps and primetime melodramas and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show where characters so consistently and reliably did the wrong things. I was never sure if the writers were desperate to generate drama or if they intentionally crafted characters with a dangerous lack of introspection and common sense, but the result was the same. Every week, Cate, Baze, Ryan and Lux devoted a lot of energy to sabotaging any hope they might have had of happiness. They slept with all of the wrong people. They kept secrets for exactly long enough for those secrets to blow up in their faces. When faced with reasonable opportunities to advance in their personal or professional lives, they purposefully threw caution into the wind and rolled around in every minefield. 
For most of the first season, the mistakes were kept at a minor key. A couple drunken romantic indiscretions, some hurt feelings, blah blah blah.
In the second season, perhaps emboldened by the berserker hijinks on its “One Tree Hill” lead-in, “LUX” was no longer constrained in any way. We had teenage proposals! Teacher-student relationships! Car crashes! Diagnoses of mental disabilities brought on by repressed traumas and physical and sexual abuse! A confrontation led to one character whacking another with a shovel! There were pregnancies! Miscarriages! The most ludicrous courtroom episode in the history of ludicrous courtroom episodes! Somebody slept with somebody’s sister! That same somebody slept with his boss! That boss turned out to have slept with his father! Complete and UTTER mayhem ensued. Every episode was almost a competition to see who would spend more time red-faced, shouting and crying, Robertson or Appleby. Whatever sense of levity, aspiration and uplift “Life Unexpected” hinted at in the early going was gone. I know smart people often do stupid things and that stupid people also sometimes to do stupid things and that sometimes people just wasn’t graceful enough to get out of their own ways and enjoy happiness, but this was ridiculous.
On the other hand, the “Lux does something bad, Baz and Cate freak out for 15 minutes, everybody cries and everybody hugs” monotony of the first season was also gone. In the first season, I complained that nothing was happening on “Life Unexpected.” That’s not a complaint you heard from me this season.
Unfortunately, a lot of what was happening was really, really bad and nobody on-screen seemed to realize it.
The relationship between Lux and Shaun Sipos’ Mr. Daniels was awful. Yes, they met before he realized she was a student (exactly like Aria and Ezra on “Pretty Little Liars”). And no, they never actually had sex, as if that makes any real different (exactly like Aria and Ezra on “Pretty Little Liars”). But for seven or eight episodes, nobody bothered to use the word “statutory rape,” nobody bothered to mention prison or the loss of a job. Everything within the show was designed to make viewers root for the haltingly romantic flirtations between a 20-something teacher and the 16-year-old girl whose mental handicap he just diagnosed. Can we say “ICK”? Because the show couldn’t. The disapproving looks from Ksenia Solo’s Tasha were no impediment to cute island getaways and chaste nights in hotel beds. 
In the first hour of Tuesday’s finale, people finally got a clue and all of the right words were said about the hideous abuse of trust that was going on here between a seriously damaged young woman and a guy who was supposed to be mentor and an authority figure. But it was all too rushed. After 10 episodes of condoning the statutory romance, how could the “Life Unexpected” writers expect that Baze and Cate and all of the characters espousing sentient interests in the situation could be seen as anything other than adversaries standing in the way of what we’d been told was true love? I think I understand that Tigelaar and company were trying to depict the relationship through Lux’s point-of-view, but I also think they confused depicting her point-of-view with surrendering the show’s vantage point entirely.
That was a disaster. But so was everything in the show’s second season, as the show’s sheer number of randomly discarded or hastily discarded plotlines piled up. What was the point of Amy Price-Francis’ Kelly and when the radio station’s producer told Ryan that Kelly had been fired, how many of you said, “Who?!?” What did we gain from Arielle Kebbel’s Paige? Did the show forget that Jones and Math were characters? If Julia, who Ryan slept with while he and Cate were on a break, hadn’t been mentioned in the “Previous on…” montage at the start of the episode, I really wouldn’t have recognized her at the end of the episode, since her particular drama would barely make the season’s histrionic Top 10. And all of those hints that Evil Abuser Trey was out on the parole, was there a purpose to that? Didn’t think so.
The “Life Unexpected” finale motored along at top-gear for 90 minutes. I don’t think you could find a single programming block without at least one character crying or another character saying something hurtful to another.
I had this weird feeling that we were approaching an ending where we suddenly flashed back to the premiere, to Lux knocking at Baze’s door and that we were going to realize that the entire series was just her worst-case-scenario for what it would be like to find her real mother and father. I thought we were going to end on some Zen note with Lux considering her options and deciding to knock on the door anyway, to face the worst of her fears and hope for the best.
But then we hit the end and Cate & Lux had a Big Conversation. And Lux and That Boy Who Looks Like Cary Elwes or Chord Overstreet had a Big Conversation. And we discovered that all along, “Life Unexpected” was really all about how everybody feels abnormal in high school and everybody feels abnormal in life, but you really just have to find somebody to listen and to hug you. And it looked like the show was heading towards a sentimental, happy conclusion built around the big moment of Lux getting her drivers license. But then Cate learned that Julia was pregnant and she saw everybody happy at the bar and she was left with the choice of ruining their happiness or keeping the secret and… SHE TOLD THE TRUTH. And we were supposed to have a ticker-tape parade at that point, because it proved that somebody learned something from this whole experience.
As a reward for having learned a lesson…
Flash-forward two years…
Suddenly Lux, who basically couldn’t read when this season started, has become her high school valedictorian. Huh? Ryan and Julia are together with their little tike, but they’re still invited to the graduation ceremony. Huh? Math and the producer from Season One who *nobody* remembered until she popped up in the finale are together and expecting a child. Huh? Lux and Cary Elwes Boy are together and Tasha’s like totally OK with that. Huh? And, best and most inexplicable of all, Baze and Cate are together and happy. HUH?!?
I know that some people were still hoping for Baze and Cate to be together in the first season finale, but after a second season in which they barely interacted without yelling and they were almost never together, was anybody still effectively ‘shipping on those two? 
Maybe with a full 22 episodes, Tigelaar and company could have finessed the season’s various complications in a way that didn’t make that “Two Years Later” conclusion feel like a path-of-least-resistance hug and farewell to devoted fans. Maybe if The CW hadn’t performed a weird scheduling voodoo where “Life Unexpected” was off the air for six weeks and returned with such a concentrated two-hour ender, I also wouldn’t have responded so poorly to what went down. Maybe.
Instead, I was left feeling fooled and a bit battered by a show that I often enjoyed over its 26 episodes, but now really won’t miss. I’m assuming “Life Unexpected” will do good things for the careers of Robertson, Appleby, Polaha and Smith, who all acted the heck out of whatever absurd drama they were asked to play. That’ll have to be enough…

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