Let's just call it “show unexpected.”
Life Unexpected arrived on the CW network in mid-January as an unheralded drama with no serious expectations attached to it. But the series — which airs at 9 p.m. Mondays and stars Shiri Appleby, Kristoffer Polaha, Brittany Robertson, and Kerr Smith — quickly emerged as a critics' darling, and audiences soon discovered its simple charms as well.
“This show had to be off the radar,” Appleby says. “This show had to be midseason. I just don't know that we would have gotten people's attention if we'd premiered in the fall against all of these huge, monster shows. There's really nothing flashy about Life Unexpected. It's not about sex, it's not about power or money. It's just about people, and people caring for one another.
“I give all the credit to the network and (CW boss) Dawn Ostroff for really getting behind the show at the right time and getting the word out about us,” she says. “The thing that I think I can say confidently is that the show keeps getting better. The first three episodes were definitely good, and you met all the characters, but the show's really started to take off and fly now, and I'm excited that people are getting to see that.”
Appleby is a film and television veteran whose credits include Santa Barbara (1985), Xena: Warrior Princess (1998), Roswell (1999-2002), Swimfan (2002), Charlie Wilson's War (2007), and ER, on which she appeared in the show's 1994 debut and for much of its final season in 2008-2009. She stars on Life Unexpected as Cate, a popular morning talk-show host who gets the shock of a lifetime when she meets 15-year-old Lux (Robertson). Lux is the daughter Cate gave up for adoption at 16, after a prom-night one-night stand with the school jock, Baze (Polaha).
The arrival of Lux changes everything for everyone. After bouncing from foster home to foster home, the girl suddenly has both of her decent-but-imperfect birth parents in her life again. Cate is engaged to her co-host Ryan (Smith), but may still have feelings for Baze. And Baze, who owns a struggling bar, seems eager to reunite with Cate, especially after their second one-night stand — seen in the series pilot — which occurred right after Lux turned up and Cate and Ryan temporarily broke off their engagement.
Speaking by telephone from the Vancouver home she shares with Robertson while shooting Life Unexpected, Appleby says that “I love this role. I like that she's suddenly got to grow up and be mature. She's got to take responsibility for herself and now this daughter too. I also like the fact that, at the same time, she's so scared about committing, about choosing who to spend her life with. That's a scary thing for a lot of people.
“And what I've really liked, as the season has progressed, is that, even as things have become complicated with Lux and with all the new challenges in her life, Cate does not give up, even though she constantly makes mistakes, makes the wrong decisions,” Appleby says. “She just doesn't give up, and I respect her for that.”
The CW has yet to announce whether it will pick up Life Unexpected for a second season, but the show's prospects appear bright. Appleby, for one, would like to see it run for several seasons.
“It's the most creative, challenging job I've had so far, professionally,” she says.
“We're all really young, and we want this show to work and be successful. All the drama is happening in front of the camera. I feel like it's almost like TV-show camp. We're up here in another country. It's like we've checked out of our lives and are working so hard to make something that people like. “I just hope that we get the opportunity to keep doing it.”
If Life Unexpected does not return for a sophomore season, Appleby will find herself reliving events from 2002, when Roswell, the sci-fi show that had put her on the map, was canceled. By her own account, she didn't know what would happen next.
“I think what was going on in my head was that I really had to figure out who I was. What happens when you're doing a television show full-time, especially at a young age, is that you check out of your life. I realized, when the show ended, that I didn't have any friends, didn't know who I was. I had friends, but I hadn't been in their lives.
“What I chose to do, consciously, was not to work on television for a while and do as many different kinds of movies, as many different kinds of roles as I could, so that I could see my range again, so that I could show myself that I had more chops than I'd been using for the past three years.”
As part of that process, Appleby moved from Los Angeles to New York.
“I built a life,” she says. “I wanted my life to be more than just about the business. I feel like, when you live in L.A. week after week, year after year, that's all it becomes. Once I started really figuring out who I was, I felt like I was ready again to put myself back out there on television in a big way.”
Appleby headed out to Los Angeles again, where she co-starred on the short-lived J.J. Abrams series Six Degrees (2006-2007), appeared in Mike Nichols' film Charlie Wilson's War and joined the cast of ER. And now there's Life Unexpected.
“Everybody thinks I disappeared,” Appleby says. “I just chose to go under the radar so that I could figure out who I was.”