Before the WB formed its unholy alliance with UPN to become the CW, it was known for feel-good family dramas such as Gilmore Girls and Everwood, not to mention its bread-and-butter show Seventh Heaven, and Life Unexpected, debuting this week, is an attempt to emulate some of the qualities of those one-time hits. It offers warm and fuzzy takes on hot-button issues: teen pregnancy, the foster-care system, alternative families. And while it’s far too sentimental and absurdly unrealistic, its actors are charming enough to render it at least a little more watchable than it should be.
Brittany Robertson plays Lux, a 16-year-old who was put up for adoption as a child and who has since passed through seven different foster homes and is now seeking emancipation. This requires that she obtain her birth parents’ signatures, and by midway through the pilot she has located them, living separately in Portland, Oregon. Her father, Baze (Kristoffer Polaha), is trying to get a fledgling bar off the ground with the help of his father’s money; he’s supposed to be a little bit of a bad boy, which means he plays beer pong, owns a lamp that once was a bong, and doesn’t tuck in his shirt. Lux’s mom, Cate (Shiri Appleby), is a commitment-phobe, a control freak, and a successful radio personality. The judge at the emancipation hearing, in one of those wacky decisions that would never actually happen, grants custody to the birth parents, neither of whom have asked for it.
Once this premise is established, the characters are allowed to walk that wobbly line between comedy and sentimentality, far too often crossing over into the latter. In the first three episodes there are numerous big moments scored to soaring indie-rock and designed to make the targeted multi-generational audience shed a tear. Some of these moments are earned (and also work, thanks to solid acting from the primary cast) but most are not; the writers are asking for too much too early.
Robertson is one of the show’s greatest assets and also one of its flaws. The irony hammered home by the writers is that Lux is the true adult, already more mature than the parents who gave her up when they were her age; Robertson is very good at projecting a level of maturity and resourcefulness, but as written, she is simply not believable enough, bearing none of the scars that her life would have all but guaranteed. And her friends—Vanessa, another product of the foster care system, and their two tattooed boyfriends—are no more realistic than Little Orphan Annie and her singing friends.
TV shows, especially of the soap opera variety, have long met with success by emulating life’s familiar problems but presenting those problems in the prettiest way possible. Sometimes this is done by making sure a bickering couple are filthy rich and live in beautiful homes, and sometimes this is done by layering on the charm and making sure the characters’ hands never get overly dirty. This is the strategy behind Life Unexpected: It wants so badly to pull at the heartstrings while maintaining an illusion of grittiness, but mostly what comes across is neediness, a trait that is never attractive no matter who wears it.