Lori E. Pike is a frequent contributor to Calendar and TV Times

"I feel like the luckiest guy."

Fresh from a month's vacation in the Virgin Islands and New York, Chad Lowe looks thoroughly relaxed and cheerful as he contemplates the last two seasons he's spent on the ABC series "Life Goes On."

Sun streams through a window onto the jeans-clad 25-year-old and his faithful border collie Tanner, curled up at his master's side and snoring softly.

"Sometimes I think it's been disgusting for others around me the past couple of weeks because I've been so happy. I realize how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to play Jesse on a show that's as classy and well-done as 'Life Goes On,' " he says,

Lowe is taking a well-earned rest after two seasons of sharing his psyche with his small-screen alter-ego Jesse McKenna--a high-schooler who contracted HIV during a night of unprotected sex with a woman who subsequently died of AIDS complications. During the course of the show, Lowe's Jesse and co-star Kellie Martin's Becca Thacher have grappled with what it means to love under the shadow of a terminal, infectious disease.

In the series finale on Saturday, a leap into the characters' future promises enough surprises and celebration to balance out any coda to the Jesse-Becca story. The preceding four episodes, though, took television to a new level of poignancy in their stark portrayal of what it's like to live with AIDS.

For most of the series, the disease was something more talked about than seen. But once Jesse's weakened immune system hit bottom, he moved from an HIV-positive teen worrying about the future to an AIDS patient struggling for day-to-day survival. After crawling back from the edge of death, he opted for holistic health care at home rather than a lengthy hospital stay. The last episode left him seemingly strong, gazing out at the ocean with Becca at his side.

But earlier, graphic scenes of the disease were grueling. In one, he stumbles, too weak to reach the bathroom, ultimately vomiting on the floor in his loft apartment. "I didn't picture myself like this," he groans again and again, weeping, as Becca (wearing protective gloves) smooths his sweat-soaked hair.

The intensity of the show took its toll on both Lowe and the 17-year-old Martin. "Both Chad and I lost weight this season and had dark circles under our eyes because we had such a heavy shooting schedule and such emotional subject matter to work with," Martin says.

"The two months that we were taping the four final AIDS episodes were really difficult for me," Lowe concedes. "I felt disconnected from myself, and had this overwhelming sadness all the time.

"I was always aware, though," he hastens to add, "that no matter how much I felt I was suffering, that it was just a taste of what it's really like to be--and I don't want to say dying of AIDS-- living with AIDS. So my appreciation of people who confront this on a daily level is enormous."

Lowe began his career 10 years ago, after a talk with his friend Martin Sheen convinced him that acting was something that he'd like to explore. While older brother Rob Lowe has made a name for himself largely through film work, Chad has focused mostly on quality roles in such TV movies as "Silence of the Heart" with Mariette Hartley and the miniseries "Inconvenient Woman" opposite Jason Robards and Rebecca De Mornay.

Lowe was never intended to be a primary focus of "Life Goes On," which premiered in 1989 as a story set in suburban Illinois chronicling the lives of the middle-aged Thachers (played by Patti LuPone and Bill Smitrovich), their scholarly daughter Becca and a son with Down's syndrome, Corky (Christopher Burke), who has Down's syndrome.

Jesse was introduced in the 1991-92 season as a school acquaintance of Becca's, but after a few episodes the show's creative staff saw the dramatic possibilities of developing the first ongoing television role dealing with HIV.

"Part of what made us develop Jesse more fully was Chad, because he realized the character in a way that was really delightful," co-executive producer Michael Nankin says. "But part of it was that we found we had a really compelling romance, in which two people were passionately in love with each other, but couldn't have sex. And so as writers we had to focus on other aspects of a relationship, like responsibility and loyalty."

Lowe, along with the rest of the "Life Goes On" cast and crew, realized that the series was unlikely to be renewed. Before ABC canceled it May 10, LuPone has already left the show to do "Sunset Boulevard" on the London stage.

Lowe plans to spend his free time writing a couple of scripts. He credits his stint on "Life Goes On" with firing up his creativity. "I think committing to the show for two seasons, and emotionally staying with it, not 'phoning in' my part when things got difficult, has given me the discipline to tackle new projects," he says.

The "Life Goes On" season finale airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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