Monday, April 12, 2010

Save Life Unexpected!

In some ways it's odd that this blog focuses so much on feature writing because I am such an insanely huge TV junkie. In fact, over the last few years I'd argue I've been vastly more entertained by my weekly shows than in the latest film offerings from the studios. Sure, there have been some great, even exceptional movies in that time - but TV has more consistently engaged me.

That's why it always makes me sad when I see a really creative and entertaining series threatened with cancellation. I've lost many good shows over the last few years while unimaginative garbage like Private Practice and Special Victims Unit goes on and on. And yeah, I know that's because those shows put up numbers that my favorites don't - but I hate to see quality TV ignored.

There might be calls for me to turn in my man-card and my critical analysis card after this, but I've always had a soft spot for what could be called "the WB dramas." I started college in 1998, the "Golden Age" of the WB. This was a magical time - when vampires turned to dust, not sparkled in sunlight; when one called Katie Holmes "hot" without irony and didn't even dare to dream she'd do a nude scene in a movie; when J.J. Abrams told stories about characters and not byzantine mythological shellgames.

Trust me, when you're 18 and surrounded by people your own age who are passionate about shows like Buffy and Dawson's Creek, you get sucked in big time. In the fall of 1998, Buffy had really hit its stride and was starting what would turn out to be arguably it's best season. Dawson's Creek was starting season two - which is arguably it's worst season, but at that point the actors were still engaging enough to draw you back each week.

Basically, Joss Whedon was my gateway drug into the WB teen drama genre. Buffy wasn't a stupid little teen vampire show about forbidden love between a vampire slayer and a vampire. It was sharp, witty drama that used its monster metaphors as the subtext for growing up. The fact that it had some of the best dialogue on TV didn't hurt either. The Buffy/Angel relationship was always my least favorite aspect of the series, but I really connected with most of the other characters and their relationships. That drew me back week-after-week.

And sure enough, the WB learned to play to that market the following year. Angel got his own spinoff, which in time proved to be darker, more mature - and possibly even better than the concurrent seasons of Buffy. There was also Roswell, a drama about three aliens living as teenagers in Roswell, New Mexico, who face exposure after one of them falls in love with a female classmate and saves her life. Over the next three seasons, Roswell's own search for identity would mirror that of its characters. Despite the inconsistency, the cast was appealing enough to bring me back every week.

(Translation: I had a major crush on Shiri Appleby, and this show also featured Katherine Heigl in her prime, before we had any inkling what a harpy she really was.)

But the WB didn't always need the supernatural in order to sell its drama. By sheer happenstance in the fall of 2000, I happened to leave the TV on long enough to catch the opening minutes of Gilmore Girls and was instantly pulled in by the characters and the concept. The hook: A woman who got pregnant at 16 is raising her teenage daughter alone, with the two of them more like sisters. In order to pay for her daughter's private school, the mother must renew ties with the wealthy parents she walked out on after giving birth. It was a great character-driven concept, elevated by strong actors and snappy dialogue.

When I think of the shows I watched in my college years - the WB shows always spring to mind. (Just so you don't get the wrong idea, those weren't the only shows I watched. My tastes also ended up on the other end of the spectrum, with Law & Order, ER, Homicide, and The X-Files.)

But it feels like that once those shows reached the end of their lifespan, that genre disappeared for a while. Everwood - possibly one of my all-time favorite shows - was born in 2002, but faded away after four seasons, and though Veronica Mars was sharp and called "the new Buffy," it too lived a short life. No other network has been able to pull these dramas off quite like the WB, even when they've employed the same creators or even the same casts.

Which is why I've gotten so into Life Unexpected, a drama that's so old school WB that it might well have arrived here via time machine. The hook: 16 year-old Lux (Britt Robertson, an amazing young actress and one of the few bright spots in CBS' Swingtown) tracks down the two parents (Shiri Appleby, Kristopher Polaha) who gave her up for adoption at birth, following a one-night stand in high school. Lux has spent the last 16 years being bounced from foster home to foster home, and hopes to get emancipated so she can live on her own. Instead, the court sends her into the custody of her parents, who haven't seen each other since high school. Her father Baze runs a bar and still has a lot of growing up to do, while her mother Cate is a local celebrity radio personality and is engaged to her co-host (Dawson's Creek's Kerr Smith.)

The show has had the usual growing pains - and there were a few weeks there where the characters' conflicts with each other ran the risk of being too formulaic and predictable, but in the latter half of the season the show really came into its own. As this post goes live, episodes 10-12, the three best episodes of the season so far, can be accessed here. The actors have great chemistry and the writers do a good job of slowly revealing more about the characters as they mature.

And yes, it features my old crush Shiri Appleby, who clearly either spends her evenings bathing in the blood of virgins or has a portrait aging for her because she looks almost exactly like she did on Roswell, which was - gasp! - ten years ago!

At the moment, it's "on the bubble" - at risk for cancellation and I can't think of a show I'd be sorrier to lose, save for it's competition NBC's Chuck. The difference is that Chuck has had three seasons to find its audience, while Life Unexpected really deserves a second shot. And I'm not just saying that because show-runner Liz Tigelaar seems like a cool person and actually answered a few of my questions via Twitter one night.

I urge any fans of quality TV to tune into Life Unexpected's season finale tonight. Check out the episodes I linked above and then join Liz Tigelaar's LIFE UNEXPECTED page on Facebook to get fun behind-the-scenes photos and updates on how you can help save the show.


  1. I'm your age, and I feel the same about Buffy (which will be my favourite TV show for all eternity), Angel, Dawson's Creek, Roswell, Gilmore Girls, The X-Files... I'm getting late 90s/early 00s nostalgia just thinking about those shows.

  2. I stopped watching Life Unexpected after 4 episodes but will revisit it on your recommendation, I'm pleased to hear it is worth persevering with because I really liked it at first.

    Just about the major challenge for writers is to make the audience connect emotionally with the characters, and episode one of Life Unexpected managed to pull it off seemingly effortlessly and was a great lesson in good character writing. But, the difficulty is in getting the balance right and not going to far into over-sentimental fingers-down-throat-ville. For me - and perhaps that's because I'm English - the writers were guilty of that in the next few episodes and it looked as if it were going to be pretty much a one trick pony about Mom tries to be a good Mom but daughter misunderstands until we're all smiles again at the end of the show once they worked it out - until next week.

  3. Man, I really thought I was the only one who had a major crush on Shiri Appleby, which started when I saw the initial broadcast of the Roswell premiere some 10+ years ago.

    I couldn't bring myself to keep up with Roswell, but I continued to carry a torch for her. Good to see she's still getting some work.

  4. Such a long post about WB golden years and no mention of "Felicity"? Seriously?!

  5. Truth be told, I never really got into Felicity. That's not a judgement on its quality - it just wasn't my kind of thing. Plus, I'm pretty sure it was always scheduled against something else I wanted to watch or tape. (oh, the days before multiple-stream DVRs or watching episodes online!)

    Oddly enough, the three times I did try to get into it I kept seeing the same episode. It was one where Felicity decides to schedlue losing her virginity with.... um, Scott Folley's character, not sure about the name. I can't remember exactly how it turns out execpt that at somepoint there was a Christmas tree that caught fire and ended up exposing their aborted tryst to the entire residence hall. Funny, but a bit too forced and screwball for me.

    I did hear about how the last season resorted to some kind of time-travel insanity when the WB ordered more epsidoes at the last minute. I'm sort of tempted to check that out just for the bizarreness of the twist.