04/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Life Unexpected": A Quiet Freshman Gem on The CW

How did a family-centered drama series as uniquely unassuming and gently appealing as The CW's Life Unexpected even make it to broadcast television? Considering the state of the medium, the arrival this season of an entertaining hour drama that does not revolve around doctors, lawyers, detectives, government agents, supernatural beings or sex-crazed teenagers is a miraculous circumstance all its own.

Life tells the story of Lux, a sixteen-year-old girl whose determined effort to emancipate herself from the foster-care system in which she had been raised largely backfires, landing her in the custody of her biological mother, Cate Cassidy, who gave her up for adoption after giving birth to her when she herself was only sixteen, and her biological father, Nate "Baze" Bazile, who didn't know Lux existed until the kid entered his life from out of nowhere. This turn of events isn't easy on Lux, but several episodes into this series' freshman season it has proven even more tumultuous for Cate, a morning radio personality happily engaged to her co-star, and Baze, a directionless, laid-back bar owner with two beer-loving roommates.

Sadly, Life hasn't been a big ratings magnet, though it very much deserves to succeed. The CW would be wise to hold onto it and give it time to grow. I'm tempted to compare it to ABC's long-established Brothers & Sisters or NBC's upcoming Parenthood, two series that also focus squarely on complicated relationships between family members, but the comparison wouldn't be solid, because those two shows are loaded with and propped up by popular television stars who can draw attention to any property with which they become involved. Life's cast - Shiri Appleby (from the minor WB sci-fi series Roswell), Kerr Smith (the gay teen on Dawson's Creek) and Kristoffer Polaha (seen briefly on a few episodes of Mad Men as a neighbor of the Draper family) - offers no such major marquee value. (If I'm not mistaken, the last significant family drama on broadcast that didn't include at least one big star in its cast was The WB's 7th Heaven. I might also mention NBC and DirecTV's Friday Night Lights here, because it has a strong family story at its center, and because I never miss an opportunity to call attention to this extraordinary series. But I think of Lights more as a drama about a community than one particular family, even if the Taylors rock.)

One of the things I like best about Life is that the series begins with a particular event (Lux's sudden entry into the lives of her birth parents) that fully explains and justifies the behavior of its characters as it moves forward. Lux knew nothing about her parents, Cate never thought she would see the child she gave up for adoption and Baze didn't even know she existed, so it makes perfect sense that the lives of these three people as well as their families and friends would go through significant changes as we join them. They are all doing their best to get to know each other, or get to know each other all over again, so their many poor choices and their occasional surprisingly stupid moves aren't off-putting. We're watching Lux learn to be a daughter and learning to understand what it means to feel safe, cared for and loved after a lifetime of insecurity and abuse, just as we're watching Cate and Baze learn to be parents after making it all the way to their thirties without any major personal responsibilities.

Another great thing about Life is that the characters don't have big bags of money that serve as narrative safety nets, as with the wealthy Walkers on Brothers & Sisters and the ridiculously rich Browns on the fondly remembered WB series Everwood, another fine family drama. Cate and her fiancé Ryan enjoy a comfortable existence as hot-shot radio personalities in Portland, Oregon, but their lifestyle is relatively modest. Baze comes from money, but his parents wisely don't give him any, and his financial issues have made for some entertaining stories. (In one episode Lux used her life savings to pay cash-strapped Baze's rent; in another, Baze and his buddies tried to come up with ways to increase business at the bar.) Baze's background is the only real narrative weakness here: He would be so much more interesting if he came from true lower-middle-working class stock.

Applebee has been a revelation as Cate, keeping her strong but increasingly vulnerable while her entire life is consumed by sudden mama drama and the secrets she has kept for half of her life exposed for all to see. Polaha is similarly winning, though in early episodes he hasn't been made to carry as much emotional heft as his sparkling co-star. Charming young newcomer Britt Robertson makes Lux so spunky and appealing (even when she royally screws things up, as real teens are known to do) that it is difficult to accept the fact that nobody ever wanted to adopt her. We have learned that she had some sort of heart trouble in her childhood that somehow compromised possible adoption, if only from a financial perspective, but it still seems inconceivable that a couple (wealthy or otherwise) wouldn't take a chance on so lovely a child. If there is a weak link on this canvas it's Smith. He's okay as Ryan, an obnoxious jerk at work but an endlessly patient and understanding boyfriend away from the job, but as I watched the first few episodes I found myself wishing that an emotionally super-charged actor like Jonathan Jackson (Lucky on General Hospital) or Tom Pelphrey (late of Guiding Light) had been cast as Cate's mate.

Even the minor characters are extremely well played, including Baze's buddies (Reggie Austin as Jamie, Austin Basis as Math, both very likeable) and Lux's friends (Rafi Gavron as Bug, Ksenia Solo as Tasha, Austin Butler as "Abercrombie" Jones, all of them outstanding). I can see a Team Bug vs. Team Jones thing taking shape soon.

Like most of the shows on The CW, Life Unexpected is very much a primetime serial full of pretty people neck-deep in drama. But unlike virtually all of the others, this one has an uncommonly ambitious storyline as its foundation and characters with so many layers to them it could take years to peel them all away. The opportunities for rewarding emotional connections are endless. I hope Life lasts long enough to make them happen.

This column was originally published at