ABC Family is one of the most distinct brands on television. With shows including “The Secret Life of an American Teenager,” “Switched at Birth” and “The Fosters,” the network addresses all manner of “modern” issues in ways aimed specifically at the same young adult audience that has proved such a boon to the publishing industry.
Certainly the YA novel “The Fault in Our Stars” is a factor in ABC Family’s flawed, though one hopes not fatally, new drama “Chasing Life.” The show premieres Tuesday.
The story of an ambitious young reporter as she struggles to balance work, family and romance after being diagnosed with leukemia, “Chasing Life” is chock-full of fine performances and smart writing. Unfortunately, creators Joni Lefkowitz and Susanna Fogel seem so determined to avoid the label “cancer drama” that they front-load early episodes with so much B-plot that even the type-A lead can’t keep up.
We meet April (Italia Ricci) as she is chasing down a story, literally. She’s wangling her way into a celebrity blood drive to get a first-dibs interview with a sports star. Alas, she is forced to enlist the help of her hated uncle George (Steven Weber), who is a pediatric oncologist.
While posing as a very curious blood donor (yeah, that’ll work), she faints, causing the athlete to grant the interview and George to run some tests. The interview brings April to the attention of the super-gruff editor in chief of the fictitious Boston Post; the blood tests reveal April has cancer.
So it’s that kind of show in which exposition is treated as a necessary nuisance, dealt with mostly by contrivance. So prepare for key information to be learned by overheard conversations and misdirected texts.
And there is a lot of key information. Not surprisingly, April’s first reaction to her (very sketchy) diagnosis is denial and disbelief. She spends much of the early episodes refusing to tell her family, even though she lives with them and they are clearly fabulous, the very best part of the show.
But therapist Mom (Mary Page Keller) has just started dating after her husband’s tragic death and sister Brenna (Haley Ramm) is all teen-angsty. Grandma (Rebecca Schull, bringing the “Wings” alum count to two) is great, but she’d just worry and April doesn’t want anyone to worry.
Especially now that she has just hooked up with the super-hot Dominic (Richard Brancatisano). Only BFF Beth (Aisha Dee) is in on the secret, and she just proves April’s point by nagging her to take care of herself and go to the doctor.
If that weren’t enough (and for the record, it most certainly is), April also discovers an enormous life-changing secret about her family, which she also does not pursue in a meaningful way despite her being a Rising Young Reporter.
It is always daring to set a drama in a newsroom; journalists get all tetchy about seeing their native environment outrageously fictionalized in ways that regularly happen to doctors, cops, lawyers and stay-at-home parents. Suffice it to say, the Boston Post is apparently the only newspaper in America at which no one blogs, except the health and science reporter. Who is so geeky that even the interns ignore him.
For most viewers, of course, a newsroom is as good a backdrop for copy-room flirtation (a copy room!) and twentysomething frustration (“I didn’t go to Harvard to pay my dues,” grumbles April’s cubicle mate) as any. A bigger problem is the number of life-changing events this young woman meets up with in a single week and her simply absurd way of dealing with them.
Yet when it’s not being completely ridiculous, “Chasing Life” is very good. The family scenes are wonderful, with Keller, Ramm and Schull spinning stereotypes into gold (Ramm all but steals the show whenever she’s on screen). The dialogue throughout is smart and snappy. Dee’s Beth is the coolest bestie since “Sex and the City,” and Ricci creates an engaging heroine.
Perhaps once April stops freaking out and starts doing what she needs to do, “Chasing Life” will do the same.
Where: ABC Family
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)