Life Unexpected -- TV Review

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In Lake Wobegon, as Garrison Keillor tells his radio listeners each week, "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average."

With the CW's "Life Unexpected," it is now official: CW Drama Land is, in fact, Lake Wobegon.

That's because once again a new CW drama features two impossibly handsome young adults who are intimately connected with impossibly adorable younger teens. And those teens? Wiser than any of the so-called grown-ups in the room. It's a formula that often falls flat, coming across as unrealistic and condescending (at least to the grown-ups).

Despite such early strikes against it, however, "Life" is the opposite, an unexpectedly warm and heartfelt introduction to complex relationships and complex people.

Portland, Ore., teen Lux wants out of her foster homes with an emancipation agreement, so with cool efficiency, she tracks down her biological parents, who had a one-night stand in high school; Mom (Shiri Appleby) thought she had been adopted, and Dad (Kristoffer Polaha) never knew she was born. She enlists them for help with her independence day, but things go awry.

That's enough plot for a whole Jason Reitman-directed film, but here it's just the start. Lux is immediately sympathetic; Britt Robertson makes her identifiably no-nonsense but with just the right dose of wary vulnerability buried beneath ugly-pretty homemade wool caps.

The joke, such as it is, is that Lux is all ready to be grown up, but her parents -- Mom is a DJ engaged to her co-host; Dad is a boy-man who owns the bar he lives above -- are floundering in their own immaturity.

That a family coalesces out of this mishmash of cutie-pies is no surprise (this is a TV series, after all), but creator Liz Tigelaar ("American Dreams") has a delicate, spot-on feel for dialogue and isn't afraid to color in her characters' darker shades. (Dad Nate to Mom Cate, "Some of us peak in high school.")

That doesn't mean they can't be ridiculous. Lux is too "together" considering her lousy upbringing; Cate's fiance is too accepting of the upending of his life. And when Lux tells Cate she was her heroine even before they knew of their genetic link (thanks to Cate's local-celeb DJ status), the saintliness congeals into treacle.

Still, "Life's" clean, clear storytelling is worth a go-around. Who wouldn't love a show that makes radio hosts sexy? Talk about retro appeal.

Airdate: 9-10 p.m. Monday, Jan. 18 (The CW)
Production: Liz Tigelaar, Mojo Films, Warner Bros., CBS Prods.
Cast: Britt Robertson, Shiri Appleby, Kristoffer Polaha, Austin Basis, Kerr Smith
Executive producers: Liz Tigelaar, Gary Fleder, Janet Leahy
Creator-writer: Liz Tigelaar
Producer: Kathy Gilroy
Director: Gary Fleder
Director of photography: Rick Bota
Production designer: Ian Thomas
Costume designer: Katia Stano
Casting: Jeff Meshel, Robin Lippin, Corinne Clark, Jennifer Page