The CW’s new drama, Life Unexpected, to-date seems to be operating much like a teenager: it is ripe with potential, but haphazard in following through on its promise. I came to this series with anticipation; the pilot was receiving a lot of critical acclaim and good buzz from audiences seeing it in previews, and the network was promoting the tone and style of the series as a throwback to the WB’s glory days, referencing critical and audience favorite series such as Everwood and Gilmore Girls. For those who haven’t caught the hype, Life Unexpected is the story of 16 year old Lux, a world-weary and world-wise teen in the foster care system seeking legal emancipation from her birth parents (who apparently didn’t dot some “i”s and cross some “t”s on paperwork way back when). Lux’s birth parents were teens themselves when they got pregnant and thus are still in stages of life themselves where they are not quite done growing up. Mom Cate is a morning talk radio host, partnered with her boyfriend Ryan (to whom she becomes engaged in the pilot, somewhat reluctantly as she is commitment-phobic). Dad Baze lives a slacker bachelor’s life above a bar he runs with several friends, light years removed from his glory days as the high school quarterback. When Lux appears asking for that unfinished paperwork to be taken care of, Baze discovers for the first time that Cate had not had an abortion, and Cate discovers that the counselors who had promised her that her baby would be placed with a loving family had dropped the ball. Before we know it, in the magical way that TV pilots make things happen, a judge has placed Lux in the custody of her birth parents.
What works best and what shows the most potential in this series is the simple central question of how we define family in this country. This question has been the through-line so far in the first three episodes, exploring in particular the system of foster care in the United States–a system few people truly understand unless they have somehow been involved with it. Other potentially rich areas of exploration include the idea of friends as family (e.g., Lux’s foster care cohorts, Baze’s bar buddies/co-workers) and the idea of linked families–that is, multiple sets of parents and siblings via divorce and remarriage, etc. The pilot highlighted these notions of family, and won me over with its unflinching peek into foster care and a talented cast that allowed me to buy into the messy relationships laid out in spite of some unrealistic conveniences. There were indeed remnants of Everwood and Gilmore Girls, two series that thrived via their unconventional understandings of family and adept look at the awkwardness of adolescence for both teens and parents.
However, I had three misgivings after the pilot that have unfortunately only been aggravated as I watched two more episodes. The first is the screaming lack of diversity in the casting of the show, which is set in an urban area and with enough examinations of Lux’s background in foster care that it really does seem like Life Unexpected has taken us via the wayback machine to the 1997 WB roster of predominantly white characters. The second is the uneven examination of the foster care system; we hear only negative things–hints of horrific stories of the families that Lux and her friends have been placed with over the years. The foster care system in this country is indeed deeply flawed, but there are people involved with it who have the best of intentions and who have helped children find love and security in their lives. It would serve the show well to more thoroughly explore this tension of a bureaucratic monster that often–but not always–thwarts the creation and support of loving family units, rather than simply use it as a backdrop for explaining Lux’s pluckiness and sarcasm or for reminding Cate and Baze that they’ve always had it easy compared to their daughter. Last, and emerging from the previous misgiving, the tone of the series is uncertain. The melodrama of Lux’s situation is fairy straightforward, but there are attempts to infuse humor into the adult characters’ personas and situations in particular–and the right balance just isn’t emerging for me yet. It’s not that some of the scenarios we see aren’t amusing (such as when a social worker visits Baze’s bar and finds a lamp made out of a bong)…It’s more that the periodic scripted “insert funny moment here” feel to the somedy robs the show of opportunities to fulfill its ability to be realistically heartfelt. I am still waiting to see some of the blowout fights and meltdowns that I am pretty damn sure (being adopted myself) would be occurring between birth mom and dad, daughter and birth parents, Cate and her mother, etc. Instead the humor kicks in when such opportunities present themselves and I can almost hear a CW executive in the wings asking the producers to make sure they “don’t let things get too depressing.” This is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity; one of the hallmarks of Everwood and Gilmore Girls was that their humor was always fully motivated and never stood in the way of representing the uncomfortably realistic moments that occur in any family that has a teenager in it.
So right now, Life Unexpected isn’t living up to my expectations–either in terms of reminding me fondly of the shows I used to love on WB or in terms of offering a fresh and original portrayal of a unique teen girl and her parents. I actually do plan on holding my breath for improvement, though–I am hopeful that the network and producers will figure out where they want to go and follow the natural lines of the premise of this story. At the very least, it’s nice to see a show that a teenager can watch with their parents that offers some sense of realistic teen behavior and respects a teen perspective, and that still gives voice to a parental viewpoint as well. While it’s disheartening that for a show to accomplish simply this is “unexpected” on TV, I’m hopeful that the series can move beyond this basic accomplishment and strive to live up to its title by telling stories that reveal the ways in which life and family can surprise us–for both better and worse.