On the one hand, there’s a strong desire to root for “Life Unexpected” — a throwback to the CW’s WB days, before the network merged with UPN and eventually opted to define itself through a series of slick Aaron Spelling retreads and wannabes. “Life” tilts more toward “Gilmore Girls” territory in both tone and topic, but despite a first-rate cast and some heart-warming moments, the first three episodes seldom rise above tired teen angst and adoption-politics melodrama. It’s the scripted version of ABC’s “Find My Family,” and not much more substantial.
About to turn 16, foster child Lux (“Swingtown’s” talented Brittany Robertson) learns she must obtain signatures from her biological parents in order to become emancipated. So she hunts down her dad, Nate (Kristoffer Polaha), who is now running a bar, has a bit of a Peter Pan complex and is understandably flummoxed to meet the girl he fathered with the unfortunately named Cate Cassidy (Shiri Appleby) in high school.
Cate now co-hosts a local morning radio show with her boyfriend, Ryan (“Dawson Creek’s” Kerr Smith), and she’s equally flustered when Lux waltzes into her life. Yet the plans for a quickie emancipation conveniently evaporate (or else there would be no series), and Cate and Nate reluctantly assume shared custody of their long-lost seed.
Series creator Liz Tigelaar (“What About Brian”) falls back on all the tired tropes of the genre, from the squabbling between Nate and Cate (nope, it doesn’t sound any less silly that way) to Lux’s alternating precociousness and neediness. What makes a family is a potent theme, but “Life” never gets much beyond glib banter and after-school special territory.
For all that, Robertson and the still-adorable Appleby (a graduate of “Roswell,” which played on both WB and UPN) nearly save things with their moist eyes and innate likability. If only the show didn’t keep stumbling into cliches like Lux’s tough friends and Nate’s disapproving parents at each new episodic turn — or empower Lux to repeatedly lecture adults about the art of parenting, which will likely make anybody out of their teens want to throw up.
So despite its modest merits, “Life” ultimately spends most of its time paddling in the shallow end of the dramatic gene pool. And based on the CW’s recent track record, that wasn’t entirely unexpected.