Life Unexpected's second season debuts tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern on The CW.
The second season premiere of Life Unexpected is a very solid episode of the show and an enjoyable season premiere on its own merits. It also creates a sense that the show is going to have an awful season that treads on much of what made the series enjoyable in its first season. There's every chance that creator Liz Tigelaar and her writers are savvy enough to avoid the many pits they set up for themselves to fall into in the premiere, but there are so, so many pits, and falling into any one of them could irreparably cripple the show. The series is turning its second season into a maze, where one wrong step will lead to ruin, when what made season one an enjoyable treat from time to time was how emotionally direct and earnest it was.
Life Unexpected barely escaped cancellation at the end of its first season, riding a wave of mostly kind critical buzz and an audience that started out large and then diminished to renewal, albeit renewal that places the show in a competitive timeslot where it will almost certainly get lost. It certainly doesn't help that the show's new lead-in is One Tree Hill, a show that should really be on its last legs by now. The first season of the show had its problems - basically the entire first half of the season could have been condensed into one 45-minute pilot and been done with - but as it gradually filled out the world of its characters and revealed more and more secrets of the lives of the four people at its center, it grew a kind of confidence that was just gaining momentum before the show threw it all away on a too-eventful finale that the thinness of the concept couldn't support.
The season finale's central idea was this: After hemming and hawing the whole season over whether to pick stable boyfriend Ryan (Kerr Smith) or high school fling and father-of-her-child Baze (Kristoffer Polaha), series lead Cate (Shiri Appleby) threw herself headfirst into her impending marriage to Ryan, even though their relationship had hit numerous speed bumps over the course of the first season that should have been red flags to both partners. Baze arrived to stop the wedding, but he was too late. He stood, staring sadly at the couple from the back of the church, the "I do" from Cate's lips still hanging in the air, apparently unaware that the phrase is not a magical incantation and if he actually wanted to convince her to run off with him, he had plenty of time to do so, not to mention legal options. It's not like Ryan's a wizard or anything.
Anyway, the finale worked on its own terms. Cate wanted someone stable, who would take a chance on her. Ryan was that someone. Baze turned into that someone, but too late. Cate and Baze's daughter, Lux (Brittany Robertson), could only watch from the sidelines and wonder why she didn't get some better genetic material and if just staying at the foster home instead of seeking out her birth parents wasn't really a better option. The best thing about this whole setup was the possible storylines that could have been teased out over the course of a second season. Ryan and Cate had rushed into a marriage to prove to both of themselves that they could do it. Baze had finally taken a step toward being something other than an overgrown manchild. Lux had no character arc, but she was there, dammit.
Instead, the network got involved.
Now, obviously, it's impossible to prove that the network got involved, outside of Tigelaar taking to the streets and saying that the potentially bad ideas in the premiere aren't her ideas but, rather, a precondition for the show to stay on the air, thrust on her by unimaginative executives. But everything that's bad about the premiere stinks of The CW looking at a sweet, occasionally moving little show and saying, "Can we maybe get some more superficial conflict in here?" If there's one thing networks believe in the very pits of their stomachs, it's that real life, life as it's really lived, cannot make for interesting and compelling television, despite the fact that the entire output of Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick (thirtysomething, etc.), Friday Night Lights, and even the shows of David Simon suggest that writing small-scale stories about people living mundane lives can be really, really fascinating when done right.
Furthermore, the shows Life Unexpected so obviously wants to be - shows like Gilmore Girls and Everwood - were shows that didn't primarily concern themselves with huge plotlines. If one goes back and looks at Gilmore Girls' episode summaries, what's amazing is just how little happened in any given episode of that show. The series came up with ostensible storylines for these episodes, but it didn't really bother with gigantic plot arcs most of the time. It was more about people in a silly small town creating a loving family for a teenage girl that all of them obviously adored. The same goes for Everwood, a show that dabbled a bit more in hot-button storytelling but was, at its heart, a series about a father trying to reconnect with his son. Life Unexpected has that same basic idea at its center: It's a show about an unusual family taking shape around a teenage girl who decided to find out the truth about her parentage, but it often feels like it doesn't have the courage to be about that. That's not a boring idea. That's not an idea to run away from. It's an idea that's almost elemental in how sweet and moving it could be.
Instead, we get "Ocean Uncharted," where it's basically impossible to say anything too meaningful about why the episode is good but also disappointing without spoiling some major plot points. There's some very winning writing. The guys who hang out at Baze's bar remain a series highlight. There are two very good scenes between Cate and Baze. Lux entertains a marriage proposal from her ridiculous boyfriend Bug, seemingly because the writers can't think of anything else for her to do (and need a reason for a new character to think she's someone she's not and can't think of a better way to do that other than slapping an engagement ring on her finger). There's a lot of stuff here that should make any viewer who liked the show last year think it's on the right track again this year.
But there's also a stubborn refusal to ignore the false drama and just plunge ahead with what made the show compelling in the first place. Ryan has to have a deep, dark secret, rather than simply being a guy who's trying to prove something to himself by marrying the self-involved, crazy girl he works with. Cate has to sink into even greater fits of neuroses. The radio station has to hire a new co-host for the radio show Cate and Ryan host, a "born-again virgin" (and one of the worst executions of the most-likely hypocritical Christian type in recent memory) who snarks about how Cate can have it all, maybe, but can't be good at it all. And something, somewhere, is going to start on fire.
It's not that soapy elements like these are the worst things in the world. It's that Life Unexpected had potential to be something other than a messy soap. Maybe the network feels like it needs to match up better with the terminally stupid One Tree Hill. Maybe the producers had a failure of nerve and didn't think they could make the love triangle believable and interesting if two points in it were married. Or maybe everyone involved just enjoys running the "potential show-ruining plot device" obstacle course. If the first season of Life Unexpected appealed, this premiere probably will, too. But there's no way this sweet little show gets out of this season alive.