Side Order of Life



8-9 p.m., Sunday, July 15

It's safe to say that if I rave about a series on Lifetime, it has to be something pretty special because I am neither the target audience nor particularly predisposed to impersonate said target. So let that be your cue to catch "Side Order of Life," whose pilot made me cry. Seriously. There, I said it, and I still feel the testosterone coursing through my body (albeit slightly less of it).

Created and executive produced by Margaret Nagle (who also wrote the exquisite HBO telefilm "Warm Springs"), the series feels like it has the potential to be the finest original production this long-sappy, formula-driven network has ever done, heralding a new quality that serves notice it ain't your mama's Lifetime anymore. This opening hour is by turns funny, sassy, passionate, wrenching, offbeat and -- at all times -- bracingly real.

"Side Order" surrounds the fallout when our protagonist's closest friend reveals to her that she's dying of cancer and the ways in which it serves as a wake-up call to get on with the business of living. Jenny McIntyre (Marisa Coughlan) is excited about her impending marriage to your basic Mr. Right, Ian Denison (Jason Priestley). She's a 30-year-old magazine photographer, blond, beautiful, pearly white teeth, the world her oyster. He's a financial analyst grad of Stanford Business School, impossibly handsome, a nice and deep guy to boot.

Into this perfect little picture arrives the dreaded C-word. It comes courtesy of Jenny's best pal Vivy Porter (a great turn by Diana-Maria Riva), and it turns out to be her second bout with cancer. Ian actually had helped Vivy through her first cancer face-off, and it was she who introduced Jenny to Ian. But now Vivy is mortified that the two are getting hitched; she feels they aren't right for each other for the long haul. And now here she is dying: showing up in her dreadful bridesmaid's dress for lunch while breaking the news. She wants Jenny to re-evaluate her life and priorities just as she is right this minute. For Vivy, it means eating that bacon cheeseburger and hot fudge sundae; for Jenny, it means calling the wedding off no matter how deeply committed to micromanaging it she has been for months.

Coughlan is terrific here in using nonverbal cues to display her devastation. Her eyes speak volumes. Priestley, too, more than holds his own, as does Christopher Gartin as Rick, Jenny's editor-boss-mentor and a guy who always has had a crush on the now-terminally ill Vivy. While Riva all but steals the show with her effervescent, ultra-neurotic and over-the-top portrayal, it's someone we don't see at all who gives "Side Order" perhaps its most tantalizing injection of fuel. It's a guy whom Jenny accidentally dials on her cell phone and who now grabs her attention as quite possibly the man of her dreams from afar. It's a terribly romantic element that works somewhat magically in this context.

The talented Nagle pens a vibrant and colorful pilot hour that fairly overflows with heart. You can tell this is a woman who feels things deeply, and she's able to mine that and put it all up there onscreen. James Frawley supplies stylish and unhurried direction in lifting from the launching pad a series that has the additional pedigree of exec producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, who only happen to be Oscar winners for their producing work on "American Beauty." Put it all together and you have a very un-Lifetime-like drama with sharp comedic overtones, one so well-constructed that dudes won't even feel the need to check their gender at the door. Let's pray it all continues forth in Hour 2 -- and beyond.

The Jinks/Cohen Co. in association with Warner Horizon Television for Lifetime Television
Creator-teleplay: Margaret Nagle
Executive producers: Margaret Nagle, Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen, Mike Pavone
Producer: Bob Rolsky
Director: James Frawley
Director of photography: Clark Mathis
Production designer: Stephen McCabe
Costume designer: James Anderson
Editor: Adam Wolfe
Music: James Raymond
Casting: Zane/Pillsbury Casting
Jenny McIntyre: Marisa Coughlan
Ian Denison: Jason Priestley
Vivy Porter: Diana-Maria Riva
Rick Purdy: Christopher Gartin