An ‘Unexpected’ take on family

Shiri Appleby (left) and Britt Robertson play mother and daughter in the CW’s new comedy-drama. Shiri Appleby (left) and Britt Robertson play mother and daughter in the CW’s new comedy-drama. (Michael Courtney/The Cw)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 18, 2010

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Since the 1950s, TV has found endless material in confirming and, at times, spearheading the cultural redefinition of family. From the days of “Leave It to Beaver’’ to now, we’ve seen TV families broaden out from the standard genetic unit to include step-relatives, co-workers, same-sex marriages, and, of course, those friends who are there for us when the rain starts to pour.

The CW’s new comedy-drama “Life Unexpected’’ throws that whole family-of-choice trope for a small, pleasing loop. The show, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 56, has a Portland foster kid finding a family of choice, and it just happens to include her birth parents. Fifteen-year-old Lux (Britt Robertson) brings her immature birth father, his bromantic buddies, her birth mother, and her birth mother’s boyfriend together into an extended support system that would surely make Ozzie and Harriet plotz. Lux creates a family of origin of choice.

And the show works, in its own hokey, feel-good, alt-soundtrack way. The CW’s other series - “Gossip Girl,’’ “90210,’’ “Melrose Place’’ - tend to avoid emotional realism in favor of high melodrama and plot twists. They maintain their cool. But “Life Unexpected’’ aims for the kind of teary bonding moments that drove old WB series such as “Gilmore Girls’’ and “Dawson’s Creek.’’ Lux needs to have a childhood, and her parents, still living out their fears at the start of their 30s, need to become adults. Everyone has a journey ahead that will inspire growth spurts and crying jags.

Lux’s mother is Cate (Shiri Appleby), a high-strung radio personality with a case of commitment phobia. Ryan (Kerr Smith), her radio partner on the show “Morning Madness,’’ is the nice-guy boyfriend who’s tolerant of her issues. In high school, Cate had a Zima-fueled one-night-stand with Nate Bazile (Kristoffer Polaha), known as Baze, and never saw him again. She got pregnant and gave the child up for adoption, but she left Baze thinking she’d “taken care of it,’’ as Baze puts it.

Now that child, Lux, who was never adopted because of a heart problem, is seeking legal emancipation so she can end her tour of unpleasant foster homes. In the process, she tracks down her birth parents, presenting them with the opportunity to finally take responsibility. “I don’t want to be that guy who bails,’’ Baze says, ready to step out of his Judd-Apatow-movie of a life.

Robertson is lovely and soulful as Lux, playing her with an independent streak that doesn’t quite obscure her need for a sense of belonging. She’s more of an adult than her parents, like so many kids on TV, but she’s not terminally clever. The rest of the cast also has promise - not necessarily to become breakout stars like Robertson, but to gel into a perfectly warm TV ensemble. And on TV, ensemble is another word for family.

LIFE UNEXPECTED Starring: Britt Robertson, Shiri Appleby, Kristoffer Polaha

On: The CW, Channel 56

Time: Tonight, 9-10