Wow ... I think I just had a flashback to 1998.
The CW has always been more The WB than UPN, but even with WB-originated shows like Smallville, One Tree Hill and Supernatural still airing, it's been moving toward establishing its own identity in the last few years. Teen dramas on The CW are now more in the mode of Gossip Girl, probably the first signature show the network established on its own: They're snarky, glamorous and postmodern, cutting each bit of sincerity with sarcasm and self-awareness. And that's great: I love Gossip Girl and will defend it from any and all critics, even if it's gotten a little lost this season. But I have far more love for the dramas of The WB's formative years, which, as I detailed in this piece about the network's demise, were a key part of my own teen and college years, and were often painfully earnest and sentimental.
I would still count Felicity as one of my favorite shows of all time; it's one of the few I have gone back and watched again from the start. I had a conflicted relationship with Dawson's Creek, loving it early and then leaving it quickly, but I think it had one of the best finales of any TV show. I still worship Joss Whedon thanks largely to the work he did on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, to a much lesser degree, Angel). And though I never watched Gilmore Girls in its original run, I've been slowly making my way through it on DVD, and I'm currently on season five (as things have started to go downhill). These shows all have a sense of excitement about love and life and romance and adolescence, even as bad things sometimes happen and lessons have to be learned. That's not something we really see on The CW anymore. At least until now.
Which brings me to Life Unexpected, starring, among others, Shiri Appleby of Roswell and Kerr Smith of Dawson's Creek, two recognizable WB alums. Appleby and Kristoffer Polaha play former high-school classmates in their early 30s who find that the 16-year-old daughter they never knew (and he never knew they even had) is suddenly part of their lives. And the writing is so heart-on-the-sleeve, so knowing, so gentle in its self-deprecation, it's like Dawson and Joey (or maybe Pacey and Joey) grew up and grew apart and then were thrust back together via outside circumstances. And Britt Robertson is perfect as their daughter, Lux (her name is Lux!), bringing the exact kind of open-hearted yet world-weary teen tone to the part that fits the show perfectly. To make another old WB analogy, the relationship between Lux and her mother is sort of like if Lorelai Gilmore had given Rory up for adoption and then reconnected with her 16 years later.
I don't mean to oversell the virtues of this show; it's at times awkward and cheesy, and I've only seen the pilot, so I don't know how things will develop. But the creator, Liz Tigelaar, has the right kind of experience: Her very first IMDb credit is for writing an episode of Dawson's Creek, and she worked on Brothers and Sisters and What About Brian, both painfully earnest relationship dramas with varying levels of quality (I've given up on Brothers and Sisters, which descended too far into melodrama, and What About Brian was a mess of retooling after its brilliant pilot). Keeping a show like this from tipping into painful sentiment isn't easy, and already I can see that the sexual tension between Appleby and Polaha's exes (who both have significant others, but end up having sex in the pilot) could get tiresome. But for now, this pushes all the right nostalgia buttons, and if you like your relationship dramas with equal amounts of sweetness and sex (but very little snark), it'll probably work for you too.
Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on The CW.