A lengthy birth for ‘Life Unexpected’

Those involved with “Life Unexpected,” a new midseason drama on the CW, like to joke that they should have T-shirts made that read, “Not Dead Yet.”

The phrase has become something of a mantra, a reminder of their resilience in the face of the show’s protracted journey to the small screen. While the pilot was the first ordered for the network’s 2009-10 season, it was the last picked up to become a series.

Then the family drama -- which revolves around Lux (Britt Robertson), a wise-beyond-her-years teen who seeks out her emotionally stunted birth parents (Shiri Appleby and Kristoffer Polaha) in an effort to win emancipation from the foster care system -- was passed over for a spot on the fall schedule in favor of such glossier entries as “Melrose Place” and “The Beautiful Life.” And don’t even get creator Liz Tigelaar started on the title changes -- at least eight that she can easily remember -- the show has undergone along the way.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that such behind-the-scenes bumps reveal anything about the quality of “Life,” which many critics have already picked as one of the most promising recent shows from the fledgling network. Intelligent and heartfelt, it recalls such past winning dramas as “Gilmore Girls” and “Everwood” that were once the hallmark of the WB. And, considering the CW’s spotty track record this season -- “The Vampire Diaries” has taken a decent bite out of the ratings, although “Melrose” has faltered and “Beautiful Life” met with a quick demise -- the network could use some of its predecessor’s magic.

With hopes high that “Life” will resonate as strongly with viewers, the series, which premieres Jan. 18, has been given the plum 9 p.m. Mondays slot while “Gossip Girl” is on hiatus -- though viewers hoping to find that show’s patented flash have been warned.

“Our show’s not sexy, and there’s nothing trendy about it,” Tigelaar said during an interview in her modest office in Van Nuys. “You could say that’s bad. But it’s a story about growing up, and I think that makes it something else that’s good -- universal.”

That may be, but for Tigelaar, the story of a girl finally getting to know the parents who gave her up is also intensely personal: The producer herself is adopted. Unlike “Life’s” Lux, who bounced from one unsavory foster care home to the next for 15 years, Tigelaar was in the system for only a week as a baby. Still, thematically, the show resonates. “When you’re adopted, no matter how great your adoptive family is, you can’t help but think, ‘Where’s that person just like me? Where’s that cool, young birth mom?’ ” she said.

Lux’s cool, young birth mom, Cate, is a local Portland, Ore., celebrity, thanks to her gig as a morning radio show host. As a kid, Tigelaar -- who met her own biological mother more than a year ago -- admits her fantasies focused on a grander, real-life luminary. “I really believed Nancy Reagan was my mom,” said the producer, who was born in Washington, D.C., and was a child when Ronald Reagan was in office. “I was like, ‘If I lived in the White House, I’d get $100-a-month allowance and my room would be bigger!’ ”

In person, the 34-year-old Tigelaar -- who interned on “Dawson’s Creek” while in college and has since worked as a writer-producer on “Brothers & Sisters” and “American Dreams” -- is a petite blond with a sharp wit and seemingly endless enthusiasm. She’s also refreshingly open about the enormous pressure that comes with running her first show. “The other day, I was in the car and I just started freaking out,” she recalled with a laugh. “Like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m a hack!’ ”

The actors, though, have every confidence in their boss. Polaha, who plays Lux’s irresponsible bar-owner dad, Baze, and previously had a recurring role on “Mad Men,” said Tigelaar is “pulling a Matthew Weiner, where she’s really staying in control of the voice of the story.”

Kerr Smith, the “Dawson’s Creek” alum who plays Cate’s radio show co-host/fiancé, Ryan, was so eager to be part of the project that he read for what was then a recurring role -- and persuaded Tigelaar to make him a regular. Appleby’s affection for the pilot script also trumped any concerns the 31-year-old might’ve had about playing mom to a teen. “It’s the most challenging, exciting role I’ve been able to play so far,” she said of Cate, who finds herself in a budding love triangle with Baze and Ryan. “So to be afraid of it would be wrong.”

Playing a parent seems to have stirred Appleby’s own maternal instincts. At the start of the series’ Vancouver, Canada, shoot, she invited her on-screen daughter, the 19-year-old Robertson, to move into her home. “She borrows my shoes,” reported Appleby, “and a lot of times, I do her laundry.”

Appleby -- who calls the fame that came with starring on the WB’s hit “Roswell” at age 20 “totally overwhelming” -- has also been known to offer up tips for dealing with the success “Life” could bring. “She refuses to go outside in sweat pants,” Robertson said. “She’s like, if people recognize you, you’re gonna be like, ‘Why didn’t I just take a shower?’ ”

But like any teen, Robertson seems inclined to disregard adult advice. “It’d be such a bummer not being able to go out in sweat pants,” she says. “I think I’d just do it anyway.”