C: I settled in to watch the first episode of CW mid-season replacement Life Unexpected with mixed expectations. On the one hand, the premise holds the potential for utter sappiness: a teenage girl given up for adoption tracks down her birth parents, former one-time high school hook-ups now in their early thirties. On the other hand, it had gotten at least one very good review, so it seemed worth giving a shot. Especially since it falls conveniently between the time slots of Chuck and Castle.
What pulled me into this, as opposed to E – this is more her usual fare – (E: What, meaning all things that are sappy? C: Yes.) is the presence of Shiri Appleby, known to fans of Roswell – that delicious teen alien festival of smoldering – as Liz Parker. While Appleby played a teen in Roswell, which aired in the early 2000s, here she’s playing the teen’s mom. Weird!
E: Kristopher Polaha, the actor who plays the dad, had a guest spot on Roswell once. Goofy!
C: To counter the youthfulness of the adults, they were forced to cast that rarest of rare things – an actual teenager playing the teenage daughter! (Though only for a couple months; she’s nearly twenty, despite her looks.) As my clever roommate noted, she was one of the daughters in Dan in Real Life. Playing the cutesy-named Lux, she’s got a burden to carry here: to play the hipster zen grownup to her immature screw-up birth parents.
It’ll take me longer to explain what’s not to like about this series, but hang on a few paragraphs – it’s not all bad. And be warned: plot details below.
The big problem I had was with Appleby’s character; she did a fine acting job, but Cate Cassidy is a problematic person: a snarky, untrusting woman who is treated by everyone on the show, especially by her boyfriend, as if there is something deeply wrong with her for lacking maternal urges at 32. Imagine telling a 32-year-old man that he is a freak for not longing for babies! In fact, if you watch the show, imagine any of the things said to Cate being said to a man. It wouldn’t happen.
Of course we find out that Cate is traumatized from having gotten knocked up by her very first sexual experience after winter formal in High School. She gave up the baby for adoption, but Lux had a hole in her heart, and by the time she was healed by a series of operations she was old enough that no one wanted to adopt her. (If I were adopting, I would totally take a three-year-old since you’re past the up-all-night, pukey part but still have time to form them in your own image; maybe that’s just me.) Lux isn’t resentful, but she’s had a hard life and looking to get out on her on. Through a way-too-improbable “paperwork error” Cate and her one-time flame Baze ( E: which was one of our nicknames for the family dog – I’m having issues with that) are still officially listed as her parental guardians, so Lux needs their signatures to be emancipated.
As a big proponent of adoption, I must say, the treatment of it in this show truly distressed me. The implication of the entire pilot was that a girl who gives up her baby should feel guilty – that Cate (specifically Cate, not Baze!) “let Lux down” and needs to “make it right.” Lux has had a hard life through factors Cate could never have predicted when she made the decision to give up her baby to what she assumed would be a good home; although she must have gone through hell as the class valedictorian who decided to go the full nine months, even though Baze wanted her to “take care of it,” she’s given absolutely no credit for that. The fact that Baze refused to acknowledge the baby as his and wanted her aborted gets him one dirty look from Lux; the fact that Cate didn’t want to raise her devastates her.
E: It also doesn’t make sense; how did he not know she didn’t have an abortion if this happened when they were 16? She’d have another year of high school to go at that point! Was she supposed to have been 16 as a senior?
C: If she got pregnant in December, it’s conceivable she could have hid it until summer vacation. In any case, with thousands of teenage girls being put under the pressure of choosing between an abortion and derailing their lives by raising a baby, the message that giving your baby up for adoption is equivalent to abandoning it to live on the streets is one I think our society really doesn’t need.
The problems of that portrayal aside, the show had a warmth which, when not weighed down by the cheesiness of certain moments, is appealing. The actors manage to turn a bunch of really immature characters into people you’d be interested to see more of. The reawakened sexual tension between Cate and Baze is not one of the most promising aspects of the show, since they’re both involved with other people (whom they betray quite casually), but the way they both welcome Lux into their lives with immediate fascination, budding affection and wonder – “This person came from me? I made this?” – does make you warm to them.
Overall recommendation: if you dig melodrama with a side of quirkiness, and have a fondness for things described as “heartwarming,” this might be a series for you. I’ll probably give it one more episode and make my decision then.