Another candidate for the rare “series much better than its title” award, “Side Order of Life” is a cut above the rest of Lifetime’s recent fare, sprinkling romance and magic over its story of a young woman who — upon learning a friend has terminal cancer — begins questioning every aspect of her life. The intriguing pilot takes its time, leaving an element of mystery surrounding the show’s direction, but if the entree remains equal to this appetizer, the cable net may have a prestige show on its hands to follow the more conventional (but thus far successful) “Army Wives.”
Jenny (“Boston Legal’s” Marisa Coughlan) is a photographer on the verge of marrying the well-established Ian (Jason Priestley). On the surface, he’s a great catch, and so what if she’s having naked nightmares about the wedding?
But then her pal Vivy (Diana Maria Riva) informs her that the cancer’s back, and — in a moment of “I’m dying, so why not speak my mind” honesty — urges her not to marry Ian, cleverly describing him as “a great-looking shoe that’s not in your size.” Moreover, Jenny begins seeing things she can’t quite explain, and she accidentally calls a wrong number only to find a masculine, reassuring, strangely seductive voice on the other end, to whom she begins confiding her doubts and fears.
As evidenced by that shoe line, writer-producer Margaret Nagle (an Emmy winner for HBO’s “Warm Springs”), working with the producers of “American Beauty,” brings a level of wit to the proceedings superior to most chick-lit-inspired TV drama. Nor does the project race toward any major revelations. Jenny begins to embrace Vivy’s advice about living life to the fullest (put the damn dressing on the salad, for starters), but the series doesn’t show all its cards in the premiere.
If there’s one drawback here, it’s that Jenny proves considerably less interesting than Vivy — the series will surely benefit if Riva’s character can linger for a while — and in the early going, anyway, the supporting cast is relatively thin. (Roscoe Lee Brown, who died earlier this year at age 82, appears in an extremely effective and touching cameo.)
That said, the question of settling vs. having it all should resonate with the femme net’s audience, and Coughlan is appealing enough to foster curiosity about Jenny’s path. In the pilot, her own experience becomes clearer to her as she produces human-interest magazine profiles — a device to help frame her emotional progress that should add an almost procedural element to the series.
Lifetime has seldom done much to truly challenge its audience beyond the periodic public-service-themed movie, so even this breezy “Side Order” raises the bar on the channel’s ambitions. And while the program isn’t without flaws, like any starter to a good meal, the first taste is satisfying enough to leave you wanting more.