the pulse

Taking on taboo subject in Lifetime 'Side' order

"Side Order of Life" is a new Lifetime comedic drama series that may be the first-ever TV show to be based on an e-mail. In fact, that's a pretty safe bet, figures Margaret Nagle, the award-winning writer-producer (she penned the script for the HBO film "Warm Springs") who brought into being the series that premieres this coming Sunday night.

The e-mail in question was sent to Nagle a few years ago at the same time she'd landed a blind script deal with Warner Bros. Television. The addresses and names at the top included, as she recalls, "every person I had known in my life from college up until that moment — everyone I'd been friends with, dated, slept with — you name it."

In the subject line was a grim discovery: A dear friend with whom Nagle had attended college was sick with latter-stage ovarian cancer that had started to travel throughout her body. The e-mail was how her entire circle was finding out — sent by the cancer patient's husband.

An hour later, Nagle found herself at Warner Bros. pitching her series idea, having taken the e-mail into the meeting and holding it for strength and support. "And that's really how 'Side Order of Life' came to be," Nagle explains. "It's a show about how lucky all of us are to live the lives that we do, about how we go through life on auto-pilot until something jars us into reality to feel something deeper."

It isn't exactly the kind of feel-good original series that you'd expect to find premiering on a basic cable network in the middle of summer. But to Nagle's mind, that's precisely the point. Cancer is never upbeat or fashionable when it comes to our primetime entertainment, and yet here is a show whose primary story line surrounds the cancer diagnosis of the best friend (played by Diana-Maria Riva) of a woman (Marisa Coughlan) who is about to get married to someone (Jason Priestley) whom she may not love all that much.

"Yes, we pull out the cancer card and base an entire series around it as the running theme," Nagle admits. "Usually, we shove it into the closet and never want to acknowledge that it exists, when 600,000 of us die from it every year in the United States."

The idea of "Side Order of Life," she adds, is that we need to face down our mortality in order to really live.

"I know that's how it was with me," Nagle says. "It seemed to me that it was, in such an odd way, a revelation to get that e-mail. It was tremendously lucky — not to have a friend dying of cancer, of course, but to receive that kind of wake-up call from the universe. It takes the air out of your ball and forces you to dig deeper and farther than you ever thought possible."

But while the show may have cancer as its touchstone, at its core is the concept of friendship. As was the case in Nagle's life, the cancer in her TV series winds up galvanizing everyone in the life of the victim in a way nothing else could — "about how the impending loss of one human life impacts the larger world in which those she knows are connected, rather like a chessboard," she says.

"The point we try to make in a recurring way in 'Side Order of Life' is that while we've never been more interconnected in a superficial way with Wi-Fi and the Internet, in fact we've never been more disconnected as people. Because you know, at the end of the day, the love and friendships we have are all there is. The rest of it is just details that fill in the blanks."
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