There was once a time when ABC Family was known for cheesy made-for-TV movies, annual holiday events like the 13 Days of Halloween, and little else. But since the premiere of college drama Greek in 2007, the network has evolved into a home for quality original programming, with a slate that features charming, well-written family dramas that aren't afraid to explore topical (albeit sometimes unconventional) subjects that most other networks avoid. Yes, Pretty Little Liars gets most of the network's buzz, but series like Switched at Birth and The Fosters consistently push the envelope with meaningful and captivating storylines that thankfully involve exactly zero vampires, werewolves, witches, or superheroes.
ABC Family's latest entry in this category is Chasing Life which chronicles the very real ups and downs of an ambitious young journalist—and 24-year-old cancer patient—named April Carver (Italia Ricci, who looks like the doppelgänger of both Shiri Appleby and Nina Dobrev). April discovers she has cancer at the very young age of 24. As HBO's The Leftovers can probably attest, it's hard to sell people on shows that sound super depressing, so you're forgiven if you saw the word "cancer" in Chasing Life's logline and decided to watch something else. But Chasing Life is far from depressing; in fact, it's proven itself to be an enjoyable, uplifting series about the challenges of growing up in a less-than-perfect world. If you passed on the show when it first premiered in June, I highly recommend you catch up in time for the mid-season finale on Tuesday, August 12. And here are five reasons why:
1. It's realistic, not melodramatic fiction
Very few TV series are courageous enough to make cancer a part of their premise. In addition to Chasing Life, I can count The Big C, Breaking Bad (don't forget that cancer was the entire reason Walt started making meth!), and the forthcoming Fox dramedy Red Band Society. While it's certainly not uncommon for shows to incorporate a cancer storyline in an effort to add drama—consider Parenthood's emotionally draining Season 4 arc involving Kristina's diagnosis—it's rare for a series to concentrate on the disease.
What makes Chasing Life special is that it isn't in the business of manipulating your emotions. It's a showcase of how one woman's journey through pain and suffering puts her on a path to discovering who she is and what she wants to be. For some people, cancer is a death sentence, but for others, it's what pushes them to start living their lives. Through April's eyes—the eyes of a woman who's suddenly facing her own mortality when she's barely had the chance to explore life's greatest gifts—Chasing Life portrays the frightening journey of a cancer patient as realistically as possible, from April's initial terror upon hearing her diagnosis to her fear of telling her loved ones to her anxiety over her unknown future and beyond.
2. It features strong role models
April is one of the most levelheaded young female protagonists to grace TV in some time; in fact, she's the perfect foil to the four frustrating women at the heart of Chasing Life's lead-in on ABC Family's schedule, Pretty Little Liars. While some TV characters simply react to what's happening around them or rely on others to save them/fight their battles, April proves that it's possible to be proactive about getting what you want while still remaining sympathetic. For example, in the middle of Season 1, after learning that her chemotherapy might render her infertile, she arranges to see a fertility doctor to discuss her options even though it requires delaying her treatment against her family's wishes. She remains strong in her convictions while also maintaining her likability as a lead character, something we rarely see on TV these days, and for reasons I cannot explain.
3. Parents are people too!
Chasing Life leaves no stone unturned as it explores the way April's illness affects both her home life and her work life—including the strain it puts on her various friendships and relationships. The series is an all-inclusive family drama that doesn't stop when April goes home to the Beacon Hill brownstone she shares with her mother, sister, and grandmother. April's family is comprised of fully fleshed-out individuals who believably exist in April's life; they're not just there to check off the "adult characters" requirement. In fact, during the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour, Steven Weber, who plays April's uncle George as well as her doctor, cited the adult characters as a reason he was drawn to the project: "This show does a great job of giving older actors great roles to play, especially in a genre that you would say is almost—I wouldn't say fixated on younger people, but there are older people out there who exist in these younger people's lives and they're very prominent in this story," he said. In that vein, April's mother Sarah (Mary Page Keller) is a therapist who feels helpless in the wake of April's diagnosis. Like any parent would in her situation, she struggles to find answers, and Chasing Life doesn't shy away from her grief as it dissects how the prospect of losing her daughter affects Sarah's life as well.
4. Scott Michael Foster
If you ever watched ABC Family's Greek, then you're already familiar with Scott Michael Foster's talents and understand why I'm singling him out. The actor's innate charm and excellent line delivery brought humor and depth to Greek's Cappie, an otherwise immature slacker dude whose sole direction in life pointed him only toward the nearest keg. On Chasing Life, Foster brings the same charismatic warmth to Leo Hendrie, the only son of Boston gubernatorial candidate Bruce Hendie and a member of April's cancer support group. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Leo has only three to four months to live, which allows him to appreciate every moment he has left while teaching April to do the same. Plus, he's cute. And I mean really cute.
5. There's plenty of humor to go with the serious subject matter
Perhaps the greatest thing about Chasing Life is that, even though April's cancer produces plenty of thoughtful and heavy story material, the series doesn't mine it in every scene. Despite the seriousness of the situation at hand, the series contains an awful lot of humor. Much of the credit goes to Chasing Life's supporting characters, including April's best friend Beth (Aisha Dee), a straight shooter with great physical comedy skills, and Graham (Rob Kerkovich), the roommate of April's love interest Dominic (Richard Brancatisano) who really, really hates kale and will tell you all about it if you give him the chance.
However, it must be said that Beth is much more than comic relief. Her greatest asset isn't her Australian accent or the fact that she can perfectly deliver a zinger, but her relationship with April, and by association April's sister Brenna (Haley Ramm). Her interactions with both girls feel completely realistic, like a valued personal connection truly exists between the characters. Beth is exactly the type of person you want on your side during a difficult journey, because she'll listen, offer helpful advice, and then make you laugh when you need it most.
Chasing Life airs Tuesdays at 9pm on ABC Family.