Surprise, ‘Life Unexpected’ is pretty sweet

Television Critic

“Life Unexpected” is so oddly sweet and smart and pure of heart, so very much more “Gilmore Girls” than “Gossip Girl,” that you have to wonder if the CW is in possession of a time machine. If so, it has used it to good advantage, giving us a heroine so sassy and yet emotionally grounded she could be the child Ellen Page’s Juno gave up, if that child had been a girl and Jennifer Garner hadn’t been around.

Meet Lux (Britt Robertson), a street-smart but still essentially innocent foster kid. On the cusp of her 16th birthday, she needs the signatures of the birth parents she never met to secure her emancipation. They turn out to be Cate Cassidy ( Shiri Appleby of “ER” and “Roswell”), a prickly, relationship-phobic radio show host who has reluctantly become engaged to her handsome and solid co-host, and Baze (Kristoffer Polaha, most recently seen on “Mad Men”), a standard-issue man-boy living above a bar with two geeky but wise and true friends. (Thank heaven Baze’s name was right there on the social worker’s desk and that he was easily Googled, and that everyone still lives in Portland, Ore., where cab fares are cheap!)

Lux, it turns out, is the product of one wild prom night between the star quarterback and the school brainiac who now must resume their passionately hostile relationship and come to terms with the fact that they have a wisecracking, world-weary daughter. The sort who wears a hippie-chic snow hat while indoors and denies watching YouTube.

With a setup like that, “Life Unexpected” could have been a disaster. But the smart, insightful writing of Liz Tigelaar, the crisp and vibrant exteriors of Portland and the palpable chemistry between all the leads combine to make it, dare I say, lovable, an entertaining hour that might even offer a few insights into the complicated ties of desire and regret, friends and family.

Sure there are problems -- are we still making bong jokes after all these years, and who are these women who continually abuse nice, handsome guys and still get to be the heroine? -- but for every slip into stereotype there are two steps away from it. Cozy imagery is followed up by more realistic revelations, and even the characters’ incremental transformations are caused, often unapologetically, by self-interest: Cate and Baze are motivated as much by their need for Lux’s love than a sudden desire to act responsibly, while Lux is, understandably, torn by her joy at finding parents who might actually take care of her and her frustration over not being able to call her own shots. She even has friends who, though better looking than your average bounced-around foster kids, are flawed, angry and, one hopes, around for a while.

An immediate romantic tension between Cate and Baze is regrettable -- oh, how we long to imagine that those high school crushes will stand the test of time, and so Facebook was born -- but just when it seems we are going down the well-worn primrose path to banality, things make a U-turn. If Tigelaar can continue to resist the standard happy ending and instead explore its many alternates, “Life Unexpected” could turn out to deliver just what it promises.