Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Life Unexpected (TV)

by DionysusPsyche

Lux, a foster child, finds her parents in order to receive emancipation from the state and live on her own. Lux is sixteen years old—the same age her parents were when they conceived her.

To Baze, her father, this comes as a huge shock. He had no idea that Cate, a girl he wasn't even dating, had given birth and given this child up for adoption.

Cate is surprised herself. She was assured by the adoption agency that her daughter's adoption was guaranteed, so it's news to learn that her daughter had heart trouble, needed surgeries, got sick, and was in and out of the hospital. After that, Lux became bitter towards the adoption process, and rightly so.

Much to the surprise of everyone except those who've read the synopsis, the judge grants custody to Cate and Baze temporarily in order to reassess the status of adoption and foster care for Lux.

The first handful of episodes are a massive wave of emotional outbursts and blaming. Cate blames Baze, the high school jock who impregnated her. Baze is enraged that Cate never told him that she kept the baby, and Lux has to deal with two grown ups who are still figuring out their lives and have no idea how to raise a child—let alone a teenager, who is angry, hopeless, and lies constantly. Creepy boyfriend and a rebellious best friend included.

The show is set in Portland, OR, and the footage they show of the city is absolutely, astounding gorgeous. Portland is at home here, and it might be the best show yet that's filmed in Portland. Unlike Grimm which feels the need to constantly remind its viewers where we are, Life Unexpected is more subtle. We see footage, Baze always wears some kind of Oregon Ducks shirt, everybody loves the bong lamp (no, it's used as an actual lamp), and the show is set to an awesome soundtrack. Two of the characters are in radio, a Portland staple of morning shows (Cate and Ryan on set sometimes remind me of 105.1 The Buzz), and Baze runs an independent bar in the heart of downtown. Cate's sister is a therapist who teaches yoga on the side. Short of someone working in a coffee shop, it couldn't get more culturally relevant than that.

Die-hard Portlanders will hate this, but when Lux talks to someone about the staples of living in the city, she says Voo Doo Donuts is "okay." As someone who never understood the hype of that place (homeless people always outside, drunk people always roaming about, you can get married there), it's probably one of my favorite moments in the show. Finally, someone agrees with me, fictional or not!

Lux, the daughter
Her family up until this point has consisted of her best friend since age seven, and her boyfriend. She is frustrated by the hand life has delt her and doesn't know where to turn or whether she can trust her new parents, or anyone for that matter. Instead of talking things out, she yells, hides the truth, and bolts, which is common for someone in her situation whose mode for stress reduction is to do what has always been done to her—leave. Take the easy way out.

Cate, the mom
A morning radio dj, Cate is an overachiever, type A who compensates for early childhood issues. The trist that left her pregnant is the primary one, but as the series goes on, we learn that there are even more pressing thoughts than age that crossed Cate's mind when she gave Lux up for adoption. She strives to be a good mother, despite her shortcomings and throughout the series is unable to forgive herself for giving up Lux.

Baze (Nate Basil), the dad
Owner of a bar, Baze's charisma and laissez-faire attitude are evident in his carefree lifestyle. Yet when his daughter shows up at his door, he, like Cate, is determined to do right by her. Everyone's progress throughout the series is telling, but Baze's is the one that made me most proud. Initially accused by Cate of being “the fun one” (not an untrue statement), Baze has a serious discussion with Lux around the middle of the first season where he tells her that he wants to be her friend, but despite what they would like, he is her father, and he's going to keep trying to be a better one. He tells her what good parents do—that being her dad is more important than being liked. He also fears his past and hopes it doesn't dictate his future in terms of careers and relationships. Over the course of a couple dozen episodes, Baze takes emotional and financial responsibility for both himself, his daughter, and 'fesses up to his shortcomings. He makes good on promises, and he begins to take on a role of a proper caregiver.

Ryan, mom's boyfriend
The last influential role model is Cate's boyfriend and co-host of her morning radio show. It was initially easy to write Ryan off as “the other guy,” “the wannabee dad,” and “that man in Lux's life who isn't Baze.” This is natural, and happens in real life when both kids and biological parents feel threatened. However, Ryan shows more depth once he comes to terms with the new arrangement that consists of Lux's dad suddenly being a part of their daily lives. When Cate and Baze fall short, Ryan is the one who talks to Lux, makes her see the reason, and is a rational adult. He is the first one who has a discussion with Lux about her past that has nothing to do with current issues and problems. Ryan has his own shortcomings which take awhile to show, but he is the solid rock that everyone needs while they're adjusting to this new life.

The ever present history
Every family is dysfunctional, but Baze and Cate's families both prove why Baze and Cate are slow learners in the parenting department and why they haven't attempted it until now. Their relationships with their parents are lacking, complicated, and unsatisfying. Both of them are afraid of commitment to others, and they're not starting with a baby to mold and teach. They're thrown into the chaotic world of hormones, adolescence, and a daughter who is a victim of abuse.

Yet, Cate, Baze, and Ryan find ways to repair the damages, build bridges, and try harder than any of them ever has before.

Lux is beyond troublesome. She makes choices that would drive any normal parent above and beyond the wall of reason. Frequently dramatic and ridiculous, she shuns those close to her, pushes people away, and hides important information. Yet, it's pointed out that Lux is used to parenting herself. When that is taken into account, it shouldn't come as a surprise that she struggles to remain in power instead of letting her parents parent. She is a teenager who has been on her own more or less her whole life, so she needs to be forgiven for being childish. She is one—one that needs help. Sometimes in the show, it is clear that Cate and Baze forget who is in charge, and their fear of losing the child they've reconnected with is hauntingly obvious.

Walking away with more than just entertainment
A topic that comes up regularly is that of adoption. How unadopted kids feel alone, scared, and depressed about the future. When Lux's boyfriend overreacts to a situation, Lux, who's made excuses until that point, tells us of how hard a life Bug has led—what happened to his parents and how he ended up in foster care. Life Unexpected is a story about hope, improving, and moving past failures, but it also realistically explains how difficult it is for children of all ages to be adopted, and how the system set up to help backfires when kids age, get fostered for extra money, or are used in lieu of a baby sitter. They strike out and turn on the system designed to help them, acting out or caving in on themselves to avoid being hurt and constantly bounced from one house to the next.

Another theme is the role children play in people's lives. How they are a huge responsibility, a chunk of time and money. However, I found myself swayed by the overflowing amount of love, patience, and steadfastness that Baze and Cate have for Lux. Lux expects them to throw her away, and they don't.

An ongoing lesson, one that the writers find essential is that the characters are challenged each episode with opportunities to lie or tell the truth. In either situation, it usually doesn't end well. Their lies are not elaborate enough to succeed, and their honesty is not typically communicated by the heart of the issue but retaliated with blame and apologies. If someone gets up to make a speech at a time of anger, it's nearly impossible that they're going to back down.

Character Development and Season Breakdown
All good things take time. Watching broken characters evolve, change, and start bringing out the best in themselves and others gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. The episodes can be formulaic, stuffy, and the fighting is stupid and repetitive. However, it presents authenticity. You side with Lux when Baze and Cate are subpar at their job, and when they're too busy arguing to care for her. You feel for Baze when he struggles to overhaul his lifestyle in order to make room for his daughter. You pine for Cate when Lux blows up on her for being, well, a mom.

First season consisted of the bombardment of the new situation that everyone is adjusting to. The second season is, in part, cleaning up issues from the first season (more aptly, prolonging them) while creating new problems spun out of old ones like a never ending ball of yarn. Some of these are legimate issues: having more kids, defining relationships when they change, knowing your significant other, finding your way in school, fitting in. Yet, I had qualms with the second season.

Criticism for the Second Season
Of my check list of what didn't work, there are many here. Second season takes on a perspective of integrating even more out of this world plot lines to complicate any simplicity and resolution that has come from the first season. The writers become overly concerned with making sure that the show is defined by the title which makes it turn on itself and creates bizarre, unpleasing new moments.

The problem with the relationships from second season between main and secondary characters seems extremely forced, especially for one couple in particular. With the case of Ryan and Cate's new co-worker, this is obvious, but the other ones that grow in second season don't fill the authentic places that the ones in first season did. The contrast could be because the connections in the first season felt grounded. Biological parents to a child, a three year working/dating relationship, roommates. While trying not to spoil it, the connections made in the next season don't feel right. It's not that they're morally wrong, which some very well are, it's as if there is a restless, lackluster feeling between the characters and lack of commitment to the plot. It's uneasy and feels unnatural. Also the previously “resolved” cold cases rear their ugly heads.

When comparing the latter half of the second season with the rest, it just doesn't jive. Out of nowhere Lux has inner demons that bolt from her like some sort of human Pandora's box, except it's hard to find the good in it all. I'll concede that just because Lux gets a new life doesn't mean that her old one is put to rest, but I feel like the writers go out of their way to make her unlikeable, and regress from all the progress made at the end of the former season.

I don't know at what point the show's creators found out it was going to be cancelled, but the second half of the season spends its time farting around and in the last half of the last episode, it's like everything changes. Which makes me wonder if the writers wrote themselves into a corner, or if someone just didn't tell them soon enough that the series was going to be cancelled. So even though I liked the last half of the last season, it wasn't cohesive with the number of problems that were set up in season 2.

My Impressions
To be honest, it took me about four episodes to get into the show. The first two episodes I hated, and there was at least one moment every episode since then that got me all angry or exasperated at someone doing something idiotic or just being a complete wad. What kept me coming back for more is the incredibly emotional, well-intentioned confessions that happen every episode between the characters. This is not to be confused with what I dislike which is the over dramatic displays of anger, distrust, and deceit  I still hate Lux's bawling and screaming, that didn't change much which was frustrating. For me, the show over time became less about Lux's character (even though she is the primary one), and more about the adults perfecting parenthood (it's a work in progress). The show may be soap opera-esque, but it boils down to family, love, and having people there to count on whether times are good or bad. People make mistakes, and the best characters learn from them.

The show is defined by emotion and character development. Hell, the only description of the type of show is "emotional." While in certain episodes characters regress, it shows a normal back and forth process that moves the characters forward and teaches good lessons (especially about the importance of NOT LYING!).

If you can stand a certain amount of temperamental behavior and zealous sentimentality, I recommend this show, especially to parents and future parents. I might even go back and re-watch certain episodes.

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