Much has been said about The CW’s recent success with great original programming, but it must be noted that The CW has always had addictive series. One example, which you can binge-watch this weekend on Netflix, is Life Unexpected.
The teen/family drama, which premiered in 2010 and ran for just two seasons, was often praised for its similarities to Juno and Gilmore Girls. It centers around a teenage girl, Lux (Britt Robertson), who has been in and out of foster homes and, upon realizing that she needs her birth parents’ signatures to become an emancipated minor, reunites with her mom Cate (Shiri Appleby, post-Roswell and pre-UnREAL) and father Baze (Kristoffer Polaha). It’s pure CW: an overly dramatic premise, a surprising heartfelt series, and a cast of attractive actors with great chemistry.
When the series begins, Cate and Baze haven’t been together in years (Cate’s engaged to her work partner Ryan, played by Kerr Smith) but are clearly meant for each other, and it’s not even a spoiler to say that Lux’s return helps them realize how much they mean to each other. The familial relationship between the three is done well, building up slowly over time with the necessary angst, confusion, and occasional anger. They don’t immediately become a family in the pilot episode; rather, Lux remains a bit skeptical and suspicious of her parents’ motivations, and keeps a healthy distance — after all, these are the people who gave her up as a child, forcing her into a tough life without real parents.
Life Unexpected succeeds most in balancing the family drama with Lux’s individual teen drama. They occasionally overlap — what teenager doesn’t yell at her parents? And with Lux, there are a lot of layers underneath these arguments — but they also work as separate entities. Lux is torn between her older, burnout friends (and boyfriend) from the foster care system and the her newer life, including a new jock love interest. There’s her guilt at “beating” the system and her quick rise to a more privileged existence, especially in comparison to her old friends, who are still struggling with being parentless, or attempting to live on their own. Lux doesn’t know if she should stick with them or, when it comes to her boyfriend, if he’s too much trouble and could ultimately bring her (back) down. There are also her school struggles, her peer struggles, and everything else you’d expect in a teen drama.
There are two seasons of Life Unexpected— according to Netflix’s Recently Watched section, I binged through the entire series in less than three days — and they fly by, because you get immediately hooked by the pilot and just keep hitting “play next episode” until there is no next episode left. While the first season is actually really good, emotional, and surprisingly restrained considering the subject matter, the second season goes a little off the rails. But even when that happens, it’s still watchable. In fact, maybe it’s even more addictive because of the sort of train-wreck aspect of it, the fascination with the dip in quality, and the glee of watching such super-dramatic, entertaining fare. There are ridiculous court room scenes, an affair with a school teacher (seriously, can we start cutting these out of teen dramas?), jarring violence, and a truly terrible — but terribly amusing — season finale. While I was watching it, I couldn’t stop talking about it with apathetic friends and complaining about every detail while also gushing about how much I loved it.
But that is what makes Life Unexpected such a great binge-watch. Watching the episodes in rapid succession means the story builds much more quickly and sinks its hooks in your brain, drawing you in and making you incredibly, obsessively immersed in the emotional drama. You become personally invested in the relationships — it is impossible to watch this without holding your breath every time it looks like Cate and Baze might kiss — and devastated by the losses. Life Unexpected was absolutely infuriating at times; it was a show that made me cry about a dozen times in one weekend.