In "An Unexpected Life," the sequel to the USA Network's film "An Unexpected Family" (December 1996), Stockard Channing reprises her role as edgy New York career woman-turned-adoptive mom.
Both films are written by executive producer Lee Rose. In the first, as Channing's character Barbara learned to love Matt and Megan after they were abandoned by her dysfunctional sister, the message was one of child advocacy. It unsubtly but earnestly illustrated that neglected and abused children should have a say in determining their fate.
This time out, the earnestness is downright painful. Events play out like a series of therapeutic group and couples encounters.
Everyone has life lessons about family to learn, from Barbara and her companion Sam (Stephen Collins), to Barbara's now more functional sister, Ruth (Christine Ebersole), and Sam's cold mother, Lucinda (the always fabulous Elaine Stritch).
Pointing the way once again is young Matt (Noah Fleiss), a preternaturally wise and mature young adolescent, who is able to articulate adults' emotional undercurrents, despite the fact that he calls his little sister Megan (Chelsea Russo) "moron" and "idiot."
All familial problems reach a crisis after Barbara and Sam, still unmarried, move with Matt and Megan out of New York City to try country living.
Except for finding a friend in the school principal (S. Epatha Merkerson), brittle Barbara thinks the small-town quiet is the worst thing that could happen to her--until she unintentionally becomes pregnant. Well over 40 and fearful, Barbara doesn't want the baby, but she is persuaded by some pretty heavy-duty emotional blackmail: Sam threatens to leave unless she goes through with it. There is no discussion of age-related risk.
Exhausted and unable to bond with the baby, Barbara feels like a failure (no one brings up the possibility of postpartum blues). Complicating things are Ruth, newly rehabilitated and wanting her children back, and Sam's struggle to connect with Lucinda.
The mass happy ending, which includes an ebullient RuPaul as an upscale hairdresser, reaches fantasy proportions, as everyone achieves understanding, resolves estrangements and communicates like crazy. In case you miss the point, however, Matt, saying grace at dinner, tells God to feel free to go on now and help other people.
* "An Unexpected Family," USA Network, tonight at 8. Rating: TV-PG.