Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An open letter to the CW network and Life Unexpected's Liz Tigelaar

To the CW Network and Life Unexpected show-runner Liz Tigelaar:

Hi guys. It's me, just another opinionated writing blogger who's watched your show Life Unexpected since its premiere last winter. I wrote a long piece last spring about my appreciation for the show. What attracted me to the show was that it had a really compelling character-based premise. A 16 year-old girl tracks down the parents who gave her up for adoption following the unwanted teen pregnancy that resulted from a one-night stand their junior year of high school. Despite their very different lives, and the fact that the mother is involved in a serious relationship with another man, the trio gradually forms something resembling a family unit.

That was the core of the show - family. You had Cate, a 34 year-old woman who still had a lot of growing up to do and suddenly was parent to a teenager. You had Baze, the screw-up father who himself hadn't grown much out of the high school mentality, and you had Lux, the girl between them, still struggling with a LOT of issues that came from being given up and shuffled from foster home to foster home. And for good measure, there was Ryan, Cate's fiancee and a guy who grew into being a father figure to Cate's daughter, even while fighting jealousy over Baze's integration into their lives.

There were no smoke monsters, no vampires, no ridiculous plots about one character murdering another, or snooty upper East-side teens playing power games with each other. It was just about the characters. Even when the plots seemed repetitive (there are only so many times you can play the "Baze crashes an event and makes Ryan jealous" card), the heart of the show was the character relationships. They were so vivid that they transcended the weaker plots as the show found its legs, and eventually drove the most compelling stories.

If I may be so blunt, what the hell happened?

This season can be most generously described as a "disappointment." The quality of the recent product has left me even more disgruntled because the last stretch of season one showed what this show is truly capable of. And for this, I can't really blame Liz Tigelaar. It's been somewhat documented that the CW ordered several changes to the series in an effort to broaden the show's appeal, and in doing so you murdered everything that made this show worth saving.

Unfortunately, with the final moments of last season being Cate marrying Ryan, I could already see the brewing problem, as the show had committed to a love triangle between Ryan, Cate and Baze. The triangle was still going to be a major factor, except now the writers would have the task of breaking up a marriage rather than a relationship. Worse, the only disposable character in that triangle was Ryan, the unimpeachably good guy who's never done anything but the right thing. Cate can't dump him without looking worse than she already did.

I remember turning to my wife at the end of the season one finale and saying, "I'm pretty sure they can't get out of this without assassinating Ryan's character, and it's going to be ugly."

I was right. This season we've found out that Ryan had a serious ex-girlfriend he never told Cate about, that he slept with her when he and Cate were "on a break" last season, AND that as their wedding approached, he found out that this ex might be pregnant. He only discovered she wasn't just before walking down the aisle.

This is terrible drama, guys. It reeks of needing to balance the scales between Cate and Ryan's sins and all it has done over the last four episodes or so is turn the Cate/Ryan scenes into unpleasant shouting matches while they argue over who's wronged the other more. No character has come out of this looking good and at this point, the only thing they should be doing is walking away from each other. My wife and I used to enjoy watching this show together and now week after week we keep interrupting our viewing to vent just how BAD this plotline is.

Those rants are only broken by our dislike of one of the show's other running plots - Lux's affair with her teacher. I watch a lot of trash TV, but this plot is at the bottom of the heap. I hate, hate, HATE "students sleeping with their teachers" plots. First, it's utterly disgusting. Second, it's been done. A lot. This is another case where no character can come out of the story clean. The teacher is old enough that he should know better, and Lux has become a selfish, entitled, immature brat through this relationship. The Lux of season one would have known better.

I get that it might be interesting to explore Lux in a relationship with an older person, but making that person her teacher - a person in direct authority over her - gives the whole story an ick factor it doesn't need. Everwood handled a similar storyline better when the 16 year-old Ephram fell for the 20 year-old college student who was hired to look after his younger sister. The difference in maturity, and Ephram's growing maturity were explored without all the moral complications that come with Lux sleeping with a teacher.

Look CW execs, I'm tempted to call you a word that would bring down the wrath of Sarah Palin upon me because there is no other way to describe how great a mistake you made this year with your directives. Between those plots and a few other instances of arbitrary drama that have "network retooling" written all over them, you have destroyed this series with something I call the Zombie Bite.

Last season LUX was a vibrant living being. Then over the summer, you bit it. The show we all love died then, but not through cancellation - that would have had some dignity. Instead, you infected it with the same venom that courses through the veins of 90210 and One Tree Hill, and in it's place emerged a new show. Like a zombie, it looked like the series we once loved. It even wears that shows skin - but it's an empty lumbering shell, animated only by the instincts that drive less innovative CW programming.

"More sex! More love triangles! Bigger drama! Pregnancies! Illicit affairs! More conflict! RAWR!"

And yet, without that zombie bite, the corpse wouldn't even be lumbering. Look, I get that you've got a business to run, and that you CW execs were just trying to reach a wider audience. You tried to figure out what it is that draws people to your more successful shows and forced those elements into a concept that didn't need them. But you have several hours of programming with all of those elements. If I'm a fan of those shows, and I'm already being more than satisfied by those programs, what is LUX going to offer me that I can't find elsewhere?

The family element that drove season one is all but gone. Ryan and Cate spend most of their screentime bickering over marital issues, and Lux's plots all have to do with the teacher. Baze is involved in his own affair. There's no core to the show. Most weeks it seems to have nothing to do with a teenager who's getting to know her parents. Everyone is off in their own pods. The heart of the show is non-existent. Instead, Life Unexpected is spending its time telling stories that could be found on many other series, while ignoring that which makes it unique.

Can a network really survive by giving us more of the same? That doesn't seem smart, and it doesn't escape my notice that several of your highest rated shows actually were cultivated by another network: Smallville, One Tree Hill and Supernatural all are hits in the WB's column, outliving their network by nearly five seasons. Gossip Girl and 90210 have never been as big as those three shows. The Vampire Diaries is the first series that the CW can legitimately call a hit of its own.

So do you guys really know what you're doing? You've gotten diminishing returns every time you've applied the same formula, and yet still your solution for Life Unexpected was to turn it into some kind of 90210/One Tree Hill knock-off? You guys don't seem to be good at reading your own ratings. If you were, you execs should have ordered a new vampire character. That at least would have made sense within your track record. The Vampire Diaries is the only show you can claim credit for growing a following. The heavy lifting on your other big hits was done long ago.

Last week it was announced that Life Unexpected was not going to be picked up for the back nine. Liz Tigelaar has said it was stressed to her that this was not the same as being canceled. Perhaps there's a glimmer of hope that this show can be saved. I hope that the CW interference is lessened in the final episodes, and that the writers will get to go out on a note more befitting the first season.

To the CW - I implore you to consider what I've written. Give Life Unexpected a chance to follow its voice. Liz Tigelaar has got the goods to deliver a compelling series if you would just take the chains off and allowed her to cut loose. There's still a great show in there somewhere. This season you tried one approach to fix it, now it's time for you to back up and trust creators to deliver compelling stories. The great Brandon Tartikoff knew when to support great shows and trust those creators instincts even when all ratings logic suggested cancellation or interference. Surely someone at the CW can fight for the same quality.

To Liz Tigelaar and her writing staff - You developed a truly original premise and created some wonderful characters. I know you did the best with the dictates, but I sense this season isn't what you'd have done if left to your own devices. If LUX passes on, I'll certainly be watching for future projects, both from you and the very talented cast. I certainly hope we'll be hearing from you and I know I have plenty of readers who are very supportive of female showrunners.

The Bitter Script Reader
dictated but not read

2 comments:

  1. Such an insightful post! I too agree that this season's episodes feel like the CW bigwigs have been looking over the writers creative shoulders during the writing but steering them in the wrong direction to make the show more smutty...more CW teen show-like :( I do hold on to hope that LUX will be returning to its old self under the guidance of Liz Tigelaar & the great cast! Fingers crossed that the show finds its way back on course to where it should be headed...great family TV with all its lovely quirks!

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