Who knew that teenagers on the CW were capable of so much more than attending exclusive schools, wearing bitchin’ clothes, and/or overdosing in both the figurative (ahhhhh, the tragedy, the heart-wrenching ennui – of having too much too soon!) and literal ways (when even the drugs are the designer kind)?
Yet ‘Life UneXpected’ has taught us a valuable lesson – don’t judge a network by its pouty Blake Lively and Ed Westwick engorged promos! In tonight’s pilot of ‘Life UneXpected’ (CW, 9 pm), we meet Lux (Brittany Robertson), a sixteen year old girl who has been shuttled around the foster care system for her entire life and is now seeking legal emancipation. She simply needs the signatures of her biological parents, Cate and Baze (Shiri Appleby and Kristopher Polaha), in order to do so. Through an unexpected snafu, Lux’s bid for freedom is thwarted and she is remanded to her biological parents’ guardianship, via joint custody, for the first time ever. And while Cate and Baze met with the business end of a teen pregnancy during their high school years, they haven’t exactly spent the subsequent decade and a half growing up, unless you consider a bachelor who runs a bar, and a radio DJ – who, well, is a radio DJ – to be the height of maturity.
Here the plot thickens, and the series begins.
As Life UneXpected draws near, the Ghosts of Dramas Past are being repeatedly summoned: It’s ‘Juno’ meets ‘Gilmore Girls’! It’s Dawson’s Creek-y! It’s a lot of young people talking clever and being poignant at the same time! Sure, there’s a whiff of ‘Juno’ in the fact that we’re dealing with an adult character (Shiri Appleby) who was once a pregnant teenager – and her offspring, it turns out, is pretty fast with the one-liners. Gilmore Girls? Well, Cate is a still young, still hot mom who finds herself dealing with a feisty daughter, but in this instance, it’s for the first time in sixteen years. (Gilmore Girls never really had to trade in abandonment issues to fuel the witty repartee.) Meanwhile, the Dawson’s Creek comparisons are likely drawn from the fact that this show shares the same network parentage, and that creator Liz Tigelaar once worked on Dawson’s. At least UneXpected is being compared to decent shows and films, but let’s not overlook the fact that it also shines via plenty of its own merits.
The pilot is all the things that early buzz has suggested: it’s extremely well-written, charming, wry, alternately sad and funny, and wholly appealing. While on set in Vancouver, Fancast had a chance to speak with executive producer Liz Tigelaar, and cast members Brittany Robertson and Reggie Austin, about why Life UneXpected IS so unexpected amidst a television landscape of shiny teenagers whose primary relationship seems to be with an exceptionally good stylist. And, at a time when the fates of so many shows are determined within the span of a few episodes – when razzle dazzle becomes a survival tactic as well as an aesthetic – can a thoughtful, less ostentatious program survive, or even thrive, without a flurry of hot sex and hot action sequences? Can a plot afford to unfold at anything other than lightspeed?
“We feel torn with that, too,” admits Tigelaar. “We need the episode to feel satisfying to the viewer who just tuned in for this one, but…..the part I like is, I love coming up with an arc for the season. I love thinking of people settling into the show for the season the way I, say, settle into ‘Friday Night Lights.’ I don’t want to tune into one episode of ‘Friday Night Lights’ – I want to never miss an episode, and I want to watch them all five times. I want to notice new things every time I watch it. It’s interesting – I got my start on Dawson’s, and everything on that show to me was about longing. I used to work for Winnie Holzman, and [her show] ‘My So-Called Life‘ was ALL about longing. Wanting Jordan Catalano. Wanting to be noticed by Jordan Catalano. Jordan Catalano barely looks at you, and that’s a whole episode. He asks to borrow a pencil, and you’re in heaven. TV now is….everybody wants everything right now. You want to find characters in bed together who – it never even occurred to you that they could be in bed together. That’s one way to go, and it’s very indicative of our culture. I think what it replaces is that feeling of space, and just how great it feels – in real life or in television life – to want something.”
Of course, Tigelaar’s time working on Dawson’s did teach her a little something about developing the slow burn, and Tigelaar’s body of work since has obviously evolved along those lines. She explains how her resume has shaped the creative chops that are now on full display in Life UneXpected.
“If you watch the first season [of Dawson's Creek], I don’t think it was ever in Kevin [Wiliamson]‘s head that Joey and Pacey would get together,” Tigelaar explains. “They couldn’t have hated each other more. Second season as well. Then it was a sloooooow, slow evolution where you love Dawson and Joey, but why do you find yourself liking Joey and Pacey better? You feel like you’re betraying Dawson and Joey! It develops in you. American Dreams was my first staff writing job, and if someone told me I could go write season four of American Dreams right now this second, I’d say, “OK!” I loved it so much – and Friday Night Lights reminds me so much of American Dreams, which is why I love it so much. What [creator] Jonathan Prince did so well was he didn’t have characters speak in subtext all the time. What I learned on Dawson’s was story. What I learned on American Dreams was character. What I learned from Winnie was just infiltrating your own show with your own voice. Winnie was Angela. When you aspire to be a writer on TV, you aspire to mimic other people’s voices. So it’s a while before it occurs to you that you don’t have your own. The first time I had to write something of my own, Winnie said, “Well, why don’t you write about a person who doesn’t know what her own voice is?” So I did.”
Actress Brittany Robertson, who plays Lux, expounds on why Lux’s longing for a family is a far more profound starting point than where we find most teens in serialized drama. “In the episodes we’ve shot so far, there’s a lot of ups and downs and common situations that a lot of young people deal with. But at the same time, Lux deals with more difficult subjects, like finding her parents. It’s hard because she hasn’t been with these people for sixteen years, and she has to sort of dive in to just trusting them and becoming their child. I think there’s a lot of really fun aspects to that, but at the same time, there’s a lot of hard-hitting emotions that we’re going to deal with in the series. And anyone who has dealt with abandonment of any kind will be able to relate to what she feels and how she goes through it.”
Perhaps here is another point of entry for all those Juno comparisons: Lux is a wise-beyond-her-years heroine who, while lacking a stable family upbringing, is never short on wry observations or snappy comebacks. Robertson reveals that this is one of the more enjoyable aspects to her character. “The best part is dealing with all of her life experiences, but not making it SO heavy, because she is just a kid,” she says. “She’s learned through her experiences to make light of certain situations or else she’ll never get through it. No matter what she’s been through, she’s gotten through it and she’s a better person because of it. She’s constantly sarcastic and fun, despite what she’s been through.”
On the sarcastic and fun front, bringing up the rear (in more ways than one) is Baze’s bachelor roommies Jamie and Mate, whose own lives are thrown for a loop after their best friend must suddenly and unexpectedly adjust to fatherhood. Actor Reggie Austin, who plays Jamie, sheds some light onto this different sort of love triangle, in which dudedom and daddyhood don’t exactly play well together. Austin reveals, “Basically I’m losing my wingman. Lux definitely throws a huge kink in the works. It messes up the great system that Jamie had going. He lives above a bar, works at this bar, has access to beer, has access to girls….everything is easy peasy lemon squeezey. And that’s how Jamie rocks it. Not that Jamie’s a simply guy. He’s a smart guy, but he definitely likes things nice and easy. He lives in this perpetual state of arrested development. It’s an adjustment, but Lux is somebody that Jamie actually likes. He likes her, but doesn’t like the idea of her. Jamie doesn’t want Baze to put on the dad hat in full.”
Austin adds that the collegial frat boy vibe which emanates whenever the three guys share a scene is the real deal. “It doesn’t feel forced, it doesn’t feel put on. We actually really like each other. It gives some ease to the scenes that makes them that much more real, more grounded. It feels like these three really do live together.”
No kidding. When asked if he could reveal if there were any on-set, off-camera antics he could share, Austin confessed that these actors let rip with a lot more than just their emotions. “OK, this is a very guy thing to do – but in the apartment [that the three guys share], in the loft, that place has been designated the fart loft.” And is there a champ amongst them? “If you ask both Chris and Austin, they would say me. But Chris will give me a good run for the money. Austin is a lot more subtle and sly about it.”
Love of television has obviously fueled Tigelaar both professionally and personally. Which shows have rocked Robertson’s and Austin’s worlds?
“My number one has got to be The Cosby Show,” shares Austin. “Especially as a black actor, seeing someone who looks like me – it was special. It was a show that everyone could watch. Everyone could watch and enjoy. Everyone could look up to it. I’m also a big Lost fan. And Modern Family is really funny. Really smart.”
Robertson leans more in the direction of reality TV, though this is more a byproduct of being geographically sequestered than anything. “Being here in Canada, we don’t get a lot of American channels,” she explains. “But what I’ve been watching is….they play Intervention twenty-four seven! It’s become a new obsession of mine. I watch it all the time. I don’t know if that’s weird or demented or if it makes me really dark, but I’m into it. Also – because reality TV is a huge thing in Canada – there’s House Hunters. Oh my god, I’m obsessed. I’ll watch an episode of Intervention, and then House Hunters will make me a bit happier again before I go to bed. That’s sort of my TV world right now.”
In closing, the actors do their best to explain the appeal of ‘Life UneXpected.’ “There’s such rich characters and interaction between the characters,” says Austin. “The story – everything about it is just real and good, and people should watch it. This show just speaks to anyone with a pulse, anyone with a heart.” Robertson offers, “It’s a fun and lively show with a lot of real moments and real people, and they make real mistakes. We’re dealing with a lot of issues on the show that people can apply to their own lives. It’s a show where you can laugh and cry, and be happy, and connect with the characters. We’re a character driven show. We want you to feel like you know these people better than we do.”
And they are compelling people to get to know. So do it – Life Unexpected premieres Monday, January 18th at 9/8 c on The CW.