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Friday, 16 of April of 2021

Life Unexpected – “Camp Grounded”

“Even his stubble looks smug and self-righteous.”

Ryan, frustrated with Cate, lets out a heavy, whole-body sigh.

I feel you, buddy.

Eww.

Barring a miracle, we’re looking at a lame duck series. Just about every other series on the CW not rounding out a decade on the network and choosing its own destiny got a full season pick up while Life Unexpected still waits to hear is almost certainly cancelled. TV by the Numbers has marked it dead in the water for weeks, even positing that this show has less of a chance than the Melrose Place reboot (or at least that it’ll go out sooner than it did). To look at the tweets of LUX showrunner Liz Tigelaar, you might be led to believe that the constant wining and dining of her writers, taking them out on the town, is like a farewell tour. “Thanks for everything, guys. Stay tuned for the next thing.” Or maybe that’s just my assumption based on all my information.

Now, there’s no way those behind the show could know what position they would be in come the middle of their order. They had no idea that they would be an intra-network loser to a show that once featured a hospital worker prat-falling, dumping a human heart from a cooler, and helplessly watching a dog in the hospital eat the organ in front of the transplant patient. Yeah, that happened on One Tree Hill. But if this episode is any indication, they are not going to go quietly into the night. They are going out with a bang. A giant, disgusting, bang of wrong.

The episode starts off simple enough. LUX is nothing if it isn’t a series of opportunities to lock the cast together so they can talk/whine/bicker about whatever unreasonable thing is on their individual or collective minds. We’re set up with four dramatic situations of people having a hard time connecting: Cate vs Ryan, Lux vs Eric, Baze and Emma vs Their Biggest Mistake, and Lux vs The World. When faced with so many people that either don’t want to be in a room together or want to be in a room together but shouldn’t, the LUX Deus ex Machina invents reasons for it to happen anyway. For instance, Math organizes a camping trip that every adult on the show must chaperone. Does anyone know why Math is in charge of sports and physical education? Dude looks like he’d struggle with a lay-up. It’s feasible that if they charge Math with the girls’ basketball team that they’d also let him run the outdoor education class but — are there no athletes that teach at this school? Is Sweater-Vest the best they have?

We’ll start with the least icky and descend into the disturbing.

Lux vs the World isn’t a new one for anybody. Insert High School Bitch on this trip to make sure to sow the seeds of discord complicated by Tash living the life Lux could’ve had had she not been a torrent of self-destruction and we see the rise of despondence. Lux is excited about the trip before they leave since she feels like she could separate from everyone with her buddy Tash and stick a big old middle finger up at society. But her buddy has a point later: this is the shot they’ve been waiting for, to stop feeling like latchkey kids and have a couple years of “normal” adolescent existence. High School Bitch might have made sure Lux feels like a horrible human being and you’d think that it was the world rejecting her. But it’s not. Lux is afraid of the world and is prepared to prove them right. But we’ll talk more about that as things get ickier.

Cate and Ryan’s whole argument these last two episodes have been some of the more unreasonable things I’ve ever had the displeasure of listening to. Because they’re both jackasses though neither want to admit that Ryan is allowed to falter every once in a while, they feel like the marriage is possibly on the verge of collapse. Their offenses are forgivable but, instead, we have to listen to them bicker about it in order to establish Ryan’s struggle with not being a hero. Although I think Ryan’s fall from grace is an admirable thing for this series. It’s hard to be the rock and the knight in shining armor when you’re only human. That little nugget of struggle almost makes up for the many times I’ve rolled my eyes at their discourse. But not quite.

Baze and Emma together almost seems okay, doesn’t it? Like it’s not a bad thing for them to be hooking up? Baze is trying really hard to impress her, though it’s not hard with impossible resources. Really, you went into town to pick up food and found the time to also grab string lights, candles, a tablecloth, champagne, and ice? Was the Checkers next door to an all-night Restoration Hardware? She swoons into his arms and they begin the process of hooking up and — gosh, it’s almost sweet, isn’t it? You know, if his penis wasn’t treading territory his dad’s penis has already stomped.

And then, the ickiest of them all, Lux and Eric. The despondent Lux finds herself looking at the lake she couldn’t cross earlier only for a completely sober Eric to find her and offer her half-naked swimming lessons. I think it’s important that Eric is unhindered by the influence of any substance. Usually, when a teacher, who beyond his inappropriate relationship with Lux has been established to be an okay guy, asks for his student to strip down and play splashy-splashy in the water with him, there’s usually some sort of stiff drink involved beforehand. No, Eric invites Lux into the water, has her strip down to her underthings (is Lux the Sarah Walker of Life Unexpected?), so he can “teach her how to swim.” Sorry, Eric, she’s already been instructed in that quoted regard.

But then comes the most disturbing part of the whole show: a montage to Matt Nathanson’s “Come On Get Higher” (which is definitely not about ice cream) that juxtaposes Cate and Ryan’s angry sex, Baze and Emma’s quasi-incestuous sex, and Eric and Lux’s pre-sex (like, sure to be real sex if it weren’t for Tash). By positioning these scenes together, you beg for them to be connected, as if the marital bond between Cate and Ryan (bruised as it is) is on par with knocking boots with your dad’s mistress and tip-toeing the line of statutory rape. What makes these scene even more interesting is that we recognize this trope. The singer-songwriter-soundtracked love scene (and “Come On Get Higher” is almost the prototype for this), especially with all these couples caving against their better judgement, generally sells to us a completely valid and, usually, highly-anticipated relationship. Despite the grossness of Baze/Emma and Eric/Lux, the montage is organized so that it appeals to our education of a love scene, especially within the tradition of the early-00s WB (to which LUX, as we’ve established, is the torch-bearer). Now, you tell me: is this an ironic montage? Or do the writers want us to see the meta-quality of how anything, no matter how disgusting, can be packaged to endear to us?

Lux and Eric, stripped to their underthings, splash around in the lake.

“My eyes are up here, Eric. Also, I’m 16.”

Very early on in the series, I discussed how Life Unexpected made its stories by taking common sit-com tropes and deconstructing them to match up with the family role-reversal: Lux is the sage teenager to her biological parents constantly falling into various levels of hijinks. This sequence essentially romanticizes the eminent destruction for the latter couples (Cate and Ryan’ll be fine probably — they’re the control group), both as pairings and as individuals. Once Baze finds out that Emma was bumping uglies with Pops, it can only do harm to his relationship with her, his relationship with his father, his career, his ego, his ability to properly function. Eric literally treading water with Lux obviously is a trespass on the education system’s trust in him, resulting in the almost-certain dismantling of his career. And then there’s despondent Lux, afraid of the world, prone to self-destruction, drifting and finding new ways to disappoint herself. These were packaged as amorous romps but these are actually tragic affairs.

And if they meant it, I love them for it. If they didn’t, then, especially if you are someone that blames media for imprinting ideas onto the impressionable, it’s almost irresponsible.

A conversation with Emma (aka Future-Future Lux to Paige’s Future-Lux) leads Lux down the path to doing this thing with Eric as they convince themselves what they’re doing isn’t creepy.

But it is creepy.

Now that I see a dead end to this show, I’m almost sad waiting for it to fade out. As I type this review, Myles McNutt posted a tweet about how Life Unexpected was compromised in order to give it an edge in a highly competitive market but still failed in the end. It’s not the family drama we all thought would fill a void (see Parenthood) so it felt like it had to tread racier territory to keep from drowning. I can’t speak to whether or not the show was always planned to be a heart-warming drama where the risque sex adventures aren’t a factor or for Brittany Robertson to show cleavage at every opportunity. As we tick off the remaining episodes, it makes things interesting to throw a meta-narrative on top of the series and watch LUX be as self-destructive as Lux is on the show. But I’m not sure that the show ever had a shot. To me, it almost feels like an anachronism for our modern quality of television (and I use “quality” with trepidation). Would Dawson’s Creek or Everwood be able to survive in today’s market? Maybe with LUX we have our answer.


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