TV Review: The CW’s ‘Life Unexpected’

01.18.10 8 years ago

The CW

In the balance, The WB was the winner of the great UPN-WB merge of 2006. Four years later, “Supernatural,” “Smallville” and “One Tree Hill” all remain on The CW in various capacities, carrying the WB banner. Meanwhile, UPN is represented by aging reality hit “America’s Next Top Model.”

The reformatted CW has stuck mostly to The WB’s core of younger female viewers, largely jettisoning the “urban” sensibilities (i.e. shows featuring pretty people who aren’t white) that characterized UPN. But despite adhering to The WB model, The CW has struggled with developing shows from a vein that’s recognizably WB-y. The new female-friendly CW mode is made of cattier stuff, with shows like “Gossip Girl” and “90210” and “Vampire Diaries” lacking in the sweetness and sentimental streak that seemed to characterize my mental image of The WB’s best.

The CW actually took a respectable stab at an Old School WB show last fall with “Privileged,” driven by what ought to have been a star-making turn for Joanna Garcia.

It’s too bad that “Privileged” didn’t stick around, because it would have made a fine pairing with “Life Unexpected,” an even better Old School WB series premiering on The CW on Monday (Jan. 18) night.

[Review after the break…]

Created by Liz Tigelaar and directed with assurance in early episodes by Gary Fleder, “Life Unexpected” focuses on 15-year-old Lux (Brittany Robertson), who decides that the only way to extricate herself from the foster care system is to become legally emancipated. To do this, she seeks out her birth parents.

Her father, Baze (Kristoffer Polaha), is a former stud high school quarterback now doing as little as possible to sustain a life owning and sleeping above a bar.

Mother Cate (Shiri Appleby) is a successful radio talk show host dating her on-air co-host Ryan (Kerr Smith).

Baze and Cate conceived Lux when they were still in high school and both characters haven’t exactly been in a hurry to grow up (though, as written, Cate is more quirky and needy than “childish,” per se), but Lux entering their lives forces them to become adults in a hurry.

There’s a lot of “Gilmore Girls” here, especially in the certainty that the main adult actors seem far too young to have a daughter as fully formed as Lux. Whereas “Gilmore Girls” made it look like a positive that Lorelai and Rory could be best friends while also having a healthy mother-daughter relationship (even if the roles sometimes seemed to be reversed), “Life Unexpected” leaves little doubt that Baze and Cate could probably be great chums to Lux, but what they need to become is responsible parents. They’ve got to mature quickly to keep up with a girl who had to mature too quickly herself.

There are gaps to this story, gaps that Tigelaar tries to smooth over in early episodes with limited success. It’s better to ignore the details of how this attractive, Caucasian child was unable to find permanent adoptive parents. It’s also better to skip over the genetic explanation for how a combination of Polaha and Appleby could ever possibly look like Robertson. Both implausibilities are acknowledged, slightly dealt with and dispatched in the first couple episodes.

There’s also a clunkiness to the one-step-forward/one-step-back progression of the episode episodes. Viewers already know that Luz, Cate, Baze and Ryan are going to become an unlikely family unit, but artificial obstacles keep being thrown into their way so that new viewers will find it easy to jump into “Life Unexpected” in any of the first few installments. Several times you find yourself going, “Well that’s not as big a deal as they’re making it!” or “Wait, wasn’t that supposed to be important?” to different plotpoints, knowing that the plot is just setting and resetting itself.

If Tigelaar doesn’t quite have the mechanics of the series down yet, she more than makes up for it by forging instantly endearing and believable relationships between the main characters. They’re funny together and there’s warm, but there’s also a sentimental streak and Tigelaar is unashamed of trying for tears and warm-fuzzys, with the cast pushing all buttons.

Polaha conveys the swagger of a man who has been coasting along on a decade’s worth of unearned self-confidence. There’s something interesting about a character who hasn’t had any desire to improve himself and then has no idea of how to pull off that trick when the desire arises.

The “North Shore” and “Miss Guided” star has an appealing slacker earnestness that’s contrasted in Cate’s nervous, self-defeating energy. Cate’s backstory and the pilot find her doing a couple things which, in different hands, might make her easy to hate, but Appleby keeps any distaste from setting in. Appleby has been so agreeable and sloe-eyed in projects as different as “Six Degrees,” “When Do We Eat,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “To Love and Die” that I remain baffled it’s taken her so long to get a real follow-up to “Roswell.” She’s a really winning actress.

For viewers who have skipped things like “E-Ring” (lucky viewers), “Justice” and “Eli Stone,” Smith’s transition from “Dawson’s Creek” youth to a grown-up might seem abrupt, but he’s a good-natured foil in yet another role that could have been hatable.

Robertson doesn’t have that much less experience than her co-stars and she has the ability to appear like a 20-something in one scene and just as rapidly seem like a little girl. Some of that has to do with how she’s being dressed and made up, but it’s also about demeanor and Robertson has a good on this character on a cusp and wastes no time finding a different dynamic with both Polaha and Appleby.

The supporting cast shows potential, with Baze’s friends and both Cate and Baze’s families coming into play early, but those actors may require more time to imprint.

“Life Unexpected” is comfort programming and it takes hold by the end of the first episode and only improves in the next two hours sent to critics. I look forward to the end of the show’s premise-restating period and the beginning of week-to-week episodes that actually let these characters just live in their Pacific Northwest settling. Unlike so many of The CW’s shows, the enjoyment in “Life Unexpected” is to watch people learn to be nice to each other, rather than being cruel or biting each other. To you, that may sound soft, but to me, it just sounds like The WB.

“Life Unexpected” premieres on Monday, Jan. 17 at 9 p.m. on The CW.

Read HitFix’s interview with “Life Unexpected” star Kristoffer Polaha.

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