Survivor's tale: Grassroots groups make case for 'Life'

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The mostly listless response of the viewing public during the writers strike seemed to beg the question of whether the masses even care about primetime television anymore. There was no visible outrage over folks missing their shows and having them replaced by unscripted imposters. Where there should have been three months of ire, there instead rose indifference.

Given this inconvenient truth, it plays as almost quaint that a highly committed grassroots campaign to save a TV series might still be successfully mounted. The whole idea of taking pen to paper, or even finger to keyboard, and imploring a network exec to keep a show around feels a little bit like using a hand-crank telephone.

Yet somehow, the growing effort to rescue the Lifetime original dramedy "Side Order of Life" -- a show on the bubble that may or may not see a second season -- feels different, perhaps in part because of those doing the crusading: survivors of cancer. We like to smugly instruct obsessed fans of TV shows to "Get a life!," but this series, and what it represents, truly IS their life.

"Life" has galvanized the survivor community the old-fashioned way: by being good. And beyond that, they've responded to a series whose story line surrounds a character named Vivy (Diana Maria Riva), whose cancer is depicted not as a death sentence of prolonged suffering but an ordeal that can be managed and, well, lived with.

Matthew Zachary, who runs a group called the I'm Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation, calls Vivy "the first accurately represented and non-victimized young adult cancer character in TV broadcast history." Adds "Life" creator and executive producer Margaret Nagle: "I sort of threw it in the face of the way it has been dramatized on TV in the past, so I was worried it might piss more than a few people off and, in fact, it's been just the opposite."

The loosely organized drive to convince Lifetime to order more "Life" includes cancer survivors lobbying network president and CEO Andrea Wong and programming chief Susanne Daniels by sending boxes of cookies and notes reading, "Eat Dessert First and Renew 'Side Order of Life' " and take-out menus with the message to put the show "Back on the Menu."

It's beginning to reach the point where these people are a pain in the ass, which is, of course, the point. And when you've stared death in the eye and made it blink, saving a series wouldn't seem such a stiff challenge. But it appears they'll need every ounce of that tenacity to persevere here.

Unfortunately, during its 13-episode freshman season run last summer and early fall, "Life's" ratings were disappointing, if hardly disastrous, averaging less than a 2 rating overall. A Lifetime spokesperson said this week: "We continue to be extremely proud of 'Side Order of Life.' While no decision has been made about a second season, Lifetime's commitment to raising awareness about cancer, especially breast cancer, is unrivaled in our industry."

In other words, Lifetime doesn't want a whole bunch of cancer survivors bashing them as tumor-phobic if they pull the plug on "Life." It really isn't anything personal, they would assure. It's just business. But if I'm them, I'm also asking myself: "When was the last time anyone was close to being this passionate about anything on our air?"

Particularly in these apathetic times, that ought to count for something.
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