Life Unexpected is Unexpectedly Charming

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Let me say straight up that I was not a fan of Gilmore Girls. I know that makes me either un-American or someone who needs intense therapy, but those “girls” were so annoying with their squeaky little voices and their squeaky-clean little problems and their cute little village. So when Life Unexpected, the new mid-season offering from The CW, was touted as the new Gilmore Girls, I expected to be... underwhelmed. But I was wrong. Yes, the whole cast of Life Unexpected seems to be made up of incredibly beautiful, witty people, and Portland (where the story is based) looks too good to be true, but the plot—which centers on foster kid looking for her birth parents so she can become emancipated and get on with her life—actually has some balls. And charm. In fact, I kinda fell for it. And that was unexpected.

What always makes or breaks a family drama like this one is the believability of its characters. And the folks in Life Unexpected? are pretty believable. You may even know them. Let's meet them, shall we?

Lux, the poor foster kid who covers her heartbreak with snark
We all know a tough kid with a heart of gold, and that’s Lux, played by Brittany Robertson (a cross between Juliette Lewis and Juno’s Ellen Page). Lux was put up for adoption by her unwed teenage mother and, because of a heart defect, has been in foster care ever since. She’s an indie grunge cutie-pie/smart ass. I often hear people say that teens don’t really talk the way that, say, Juno did or the way Lux does. But I have two teens (one of whom often refers to me as “dude”), and kids today are smart and funny and quick with a comeback. When Lux blasts her foster mom with “You’d think with your last name being Foster you’d be somewhat equipped to be a foster parent,” or asks her newfound dad “to rifle through the memory bank of teenage girls you impregnated,” the sarcasm sounds just right to me. And who can blame the kid for wanting to be free of the foster care system? The only constant in her life has been listening to a local morning talk show.

Cate Cassidy, the former straight-A student who’s a bit of a mess
Cate is a 30-something early-morning radio shock jocks at K100 in Portland, Oregon. Played by doe-eyed Shiri Appleby (ER ), Cate is your classic very-good girl who made one big mistake and may never get over it. Her big boo-boo happened in high school, when she hooked up with the meathead quarterback in the back of his mother’s van in high school, got pregnant, had the baby, give it up for adoption, and decided she could no longer trust or get close to anybody. Instead of really living, she spins snark on talk radio, and keeps her co-host Ryan and her newly discovered daughter at arm’s length. This chick’s feelings are buried deep. Or are they? Ten minutes with the quarterback who deflowered her and she’s back in bed with him. Baaaad girl.

Ryan Thomas, Mr. Clean-Cut Control Freak
Ryan, played by Kerr Smith of Dawson’s Creek and Charmed fame, is a Leo DiCaprio and Matthew Perry mix with an engaging smile. He’s sharp, he’s nosy, he wants to marry Cate, and he’s peeved when she doesn’t fall all over him. He’s the kind of guy who is so sure he’s right for you that he doesn’t have the vision to see who you really are or the smarts to shut up. When he riffs on-air about why Cate hates high school so much, he goes too far: “Who hates high school? What, did you have pizza face or something … were you one of those girls who got knocked up on prom night…?” One look at Cate’s shocked, sad face: “Cate, DID you get knocked up on prom night?” Well, actually, it was at Winter Formal, Mr. Must-Know-It-All. How'd you like them apples?

Nate “Baze” Bazile, the dude who will just not grow up
Nate, played by the scruffy Kristoffer Polaha, is your classic slacker who peaked in high school when he was the quarterback. Now his philosophy in life is: “Dad said to do what I love, and I love to drink for free.” He has two roommates who live/party with him above the bar he runs, and he appears to not have matured a bit since high school graduation in 1994 (except for his receding hairline, the butt of recurring jokes). When Nate first meets Lux he thinks she is selling Girl Scout cookies, but no: She’s there to tell him “I’m kinda comprised of half your gene pool. I’m your daughter.” Nate re-introduces himself to Cate by saying “You know, we kind of did it that time.” Well, what do you expect from a guy wearing a “MILF, MILF, It’s good for the body” T-shirt?

“Math,” the chubby best friend
Played by Austin Basis, Math is the roommate who is all heart and the voice of reason. His friends are always telling him to “man up” because he seems to be in touch with his feelings. He’s brutally honest. When Baze tells Lux that her mom is Cate Cassidy, Math says “Class of ’94 Cate Cassidy? Number one in class, 4.0 Cate Cassidy? She would never have slept with you. Did you Roofie her?” This line made me decide that I really like these people, especially Math.

Because I believe these characters (I mean, of course the poor girl got pregnant the first time she had sex; isn’t that the way it always goes?), it was easy to buy into the slightly improbable story line: Cate and Nate (cute, huh?) are given temporary custody of Lux after the court denies her request for emancipation on her sixteenth birthday. Ryan and his roomies will all be there to help, of course!

Some of the melodrama is meant to be over the top: Nate and Lux bonded over YouTube videos like "The Panda Sneeze" and "The Lion Reunion Christian Full." I watched Baze and Lux tear up as the lion and its owners were reunited (if you don’t know this video, go watch it in all of its teary hilariousness here). We get it, we get it: The panda and her baby and the lion recognizing its owners while Whitney Houston sings “I will always love you.” This finding-your-parents business is emotional stuff! I felt totally manipulated—in a good way.

By the time Nate and Cate (and friends) threw Lux her very first birthday party, complete with lions on the cake, I was in total “awww” territory. When Lux blew out the candles, leaving one lone flame, and Math said, “…gotta get that last one, or it won’t come true,” Lux looked at Cate and says “I think it already has.” Cue the music (The Weepies' "Can’t Go Back Now"), cue the tears!

It’ll be interesting in the coming weeks to see how Lux makes out with this motley crew of semi-adults. In future episodes, she'll get her very first bedroom to herself, meet her grandparents (hint: it doesn’t go well), be transferred to the same high school where her parents hooked up, and spring a head-shaven, motorcycle-riding boyfriend from foster care on her parents (the very hot Ravi Gavron, playing a tattooed boy named “Bug”). We'll find out how Lux got her unusual name, and, interestingly, a bong (made into a lamp) plays a starring role. Forget those squeaky-clean Gilmore Girls; Life Unexpected has real, unexpected charm.

What did you think of the series premiere?

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