Julie’s note: A while back, I wrote a post (my first, in fact) concerning the multiple teen pregnancy-related storylines on TV. Around that same time a show first aired on The CW: Life Unexpected. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a show — a modern day fairy tale, really — about a teenage foster child who tracks down her birth parents in order to become emancipated, and via an institutional deus es machina, winds up in their care. As of yesterday, it has been picked up for a second season.
The show took me by pleasant surprise. Not only does it hearken back to the WB’s earlier, rose-colored days when young adults built non-traditional families, but it has a risk[ier than most] depiction of real, flawed women and tough situations. A welcome television oasis, one would gather, from the One Tree Hills and 90210s that sandwich it on the young network.
Liz Tigelaar, Life Unexpected’s showrunner, agreed to sit down with me a few weeks ago and talk about the show, its gender (politics?), and her experience as a female showrunner.
Liz Tigelaar: It was a lot of things. On one hand I would think about my life: I’m kind of scared of babies and I would love if a teenager was just dropped on my doorstep. And I also had a long relationship with someone from high school and always thought, “What if we had a baby in high school?” So I was thinking about my own life. And I love coming of age stories and the idea that the parents are the people who need to grow up because of the kid. On a deeper level, I’m adopted and always had this fantasy of finding my birth parents … It was only in doing the show that I realized how I grappled with it. So I guess you could say it’s pretty personal, but I didn’t think of it that way [originally]. In retrospect a friend who read [the script] said, “Hey, this is kind of about you!” And I was like, “What?”
JB: So how then, for a story so personal, do you separate yourself?
LT: It isn’t my story. The themes and ideas [are], but I wasn’t a foster kid, I wasn’t a kid who didn’t get adopted, I have great parents who wanted me, who are amazing people. So it’s not my story, but I may see myself in my characters, like Cate, obviously. I never wanted to write a story about myself, it’s more that I can see myself in this fictional story.
JB: How do you feel about how you handled the foster care stuff?
LT: There’s always more research that can be done, and there are things you do for television, so I’m not claiming that we’re any more accurate than Grey’s Anatomy or any other medical story [chuckles]. But I read a lot of memoirs, so even if we haven’t been able to get the facts and logistics right … we’ve tried to be really true to a character’s emotional state, and obviously there’s only so far we can go on the CW. People will say like, Lux is a brat, Lux is unlikeable; there’s this idea that you’re going to have this perfect kid with no damage who’s just grateful and allows you to love them when they’ve been through awful stuff. We’ve really tried with all the characters to not think of them as good or bad but just as people, who are flawed, who are trying.
JB: I’ve read a lot of hateful responses to Cate’s character … I’m wondering if you think that’s symptomatic of how we view the mother/father dynamic.
LT: Of course! I never sat around fantasizing who my birth father was. It’s completely different, a birth mother vs. a birth father: You were in your birth mother’s body and she gave you up. With Lux, in a way, her anger is still directed at Cate. And Baze is less important because in her mind growing up, he wasn’t even a thought. I think she always fantasized Cate was her mom, that person on the radio, and I don’t think she sat around fantasizing who her dad was. I always thought that was true, as was that theme of being a parent vs. being a friend.
Whether in business or parenting, women and men can behave the exact same way but be conceived completely differently. A guy is powerful, strong and won’t back down, whereas a woman is a bitch. And it’s the same on TV. You could never have the character House be female. It would be like, “That character is totally unlikeable!” We like the female characters who have babies and get married! We like the ones who don’t take their anger out on other people. That’s true for parenting, too. When I was little, my dad would do my hair before school when my mom was out of town. It would be the worst job ever —
JB: With braids and poofs going everywhere —
LT: Right! But if your dad did it, that was so cute! But if your mom sent you to school like that? “She needs to be taken away from her.” It’s an entirely, completely different standard, which I wanted to also explore. And I think we’ll keep exploring.
JB: So, I read that originally you wanted Cate to be a bike messenger …
LT: Originally she was going to be having an affair with a married man … more screwed up, basically. The way it panned out, it [now] made sense to have her on a pedestal, and it probably relates more closely to the way I put mother figures on a pedestal. But when I originally conceived it, I wanted it to be more inconvenient [for Cate] to have a kid. But I realized (well, obviously, the CW helped me realize) that … she and Baze would be in the same boat [financially], so it’s nice they have different challenges. But at the time I thought: If she’s living in an apartment with two roommates and she thinks her married boyfriend is going to leave his wife, and she has a whatever job …
JB: Have you gotten any responses from people involved in the foster care system?
LT: The responses have actually been pretty good. I mean, when you’re tackling an issue like this, you always get nervous that you’re not going to do it justice. And there are things that we could always do better. We always call and ask [our consultants] specific questions and really try to honor the truth of the situation. But there’s a website called “Birth Mother, First Mother,” and I always get linked there about the show and I think that it resonated that way. A foster care documentary about easing out of the system contacted me and I did a little endorsement of it. It’s definitely made me want to get involved [with foster care] in some way, and I think it’s also only led to more ideas for stories. Not only with Life Unexpected–I have another pilot that I really want to do that’s kind of in a different direction. But I don’t, I try not to read TelevisionWithoutPity. I always want to go on so bad because I think the people who write on there are really smart and know a lot about TV, but I’m afraid to go on there because …
JB: You’re not sure what they’re writing about the show?
LT: Well, honestly, I’m just afraid that I will get so paralyzed. It’s hard. There’s so many debates that go into everything that people don’t know [about] … To do this job and this show you have to have confidence in yourself and your decisions or you will not be able to do it, so I tried not to be obsessed with what undermines it too much, but I do get really curious. I know what I think of as a fan of something, and I tell the writers all the time: If I was on my own staff, I would be revolting all the time … It’s been shocking to me, once the weight of the show and the responsibility is on your shoulders, how your storytelling changes. I haven’t seen the wide response, but from the articles, I’ve been pretty happy.
JB: One of the great things about the show is that the characters are complex, but the characters get a lot of flack. And I was wondering if female characters get more of it.
LT: Definitely. Look at how much people love Baze, who’s no worse, no better, than Lux or Cate. One thing I loved in the evolution of Cate’s character: I feel like at the beginning, people did find her a certain way, but people have really come to understand her and relate to her … I’m a lot like Cate, and I don’t think I’m that [I’m so different]. I think a lot of people are like me. I remember with the first draft I handed in, they said, she’s unlikeable, a woman who doesn’t want to get married and have babies is unlikeable, a woman who takes her anger out on others rather than turning it inwards is unlikeable, all these things that make a woman unlikeable. A man would never get these notes.
And so I would always push Cate further, and I’m happy that she gets to be as broad and real as she is. When we were watching the finale together, my dad laughs and goes: “She’s just always herself. No matter what.” And I love that he said that, because I always thought Cate is who she is despite herself. Even if she sometimes wants to be different, she can’t help but be herself for better or worse.
JB: You definitely touched on that in the early episodes when Cate questions the perception where the female radio jockey is crazy and abrasive, and the guy jockey is funny and cool. I think a lot of women really connect with that …
LT: It’s the reason that Liz Lemon is so loved. All of us see ourselves in her. With the women from Sex and the City, maybe we saw ourselves in that we have those conversations with our girlfriends, but I don’t think that most people [really] saw themselves. But Tina Fey’s character is so popular because people feel like floundering basket cases. Especially now … You prioritized your career over personal life and it creates a whole set of issues. Cate’s done that. She’s a character I really love, she’s really easy to write, I love making fun of her, I love Shiri [Appleby]’s quirks, and she just embodies her. She gets it. And it’s really fun to see.
JB: You’ve said that Life Unexpected is the unsexy show on The CW. So what might young women take from Life Unexpected that they wouldn’t take from … Gossip Girl?
LT: It’s a love story, it’s not a sexy love story because it’s a love story between a family. It’s about family and trying and wanting to be better than you are, and how it’s easier to tell somebody to do something but harder to follow yourself. We have this image of how women should be, if we opened magazines and we just saw ourselves, if we turned on the TV and just saw ourselves … not to say that we sit around comparing ourselves to every woman, but I think it’s a truer representation of what’s going on … [The characters] don’t strive to be perfect because they know they’re not. There’s no standard of perfection. But, I think it’s just more real.
The stories we tell are going to be more emblematic of real situations. We’re not going to have two girls kiss because it’s hot. It’s going to be because one person is really struggling with something, something real, [for] the kids watching who might also be struggling with it. We’re not doing anything for shock value or sex appeal. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, it’s fine, but it’s not us. If we tried to be that, it would be inauthentic. We have to stick to what we do.
JB: What are the things that Lux is struggling with? Clearly not all her issues are tied in a bow…
LT: Well I haven’t pitched second season yet [Note: this interview took place in mid April] so I don’t know what they’ll like or what they won’t like … Once she’s been adopted, all the push-pulling goes away, and what it becomes is, I want to live up to whoever you expected me to be. I don’t want them to know they got a lemon. I don’t want them to think they got a dud, but inside I kind of feel like a dud. I think that’s the story, and what’s really amazing and heartbreaking.
JB: How does sex come up in the writers’ room, or with the network?
LT: We haven’t had a lot of it, probably because the show’s so not sexy. We did have this question in the beginning, was Lux a virgin or not? And I see that it’s a good story, Lux losing her virginity, but personally I feel like I’ve written that story. I haven’t, but I feel like I have. And I’ve seen it a million and one times, and I just don’t believe that she’s a virgin. I don’t believe that Bug was the first person she had sex with. I believe that a kid that’s looking for love, looks for love, and … takes sex for love … In the episode where she’s just lying in bed with Bug in her underwear, we [didn’t] have to make [a thing of it]. We obviously did a story with Baze hoping she’s a virgin, but “My boyfriend’s name is Bug. I was going to live with him. Are you kidding me?!” I think that’s more fun. I like taking stories that you’ve seen and then turning them because we have a more adult character.
JB: I think you handled well the part where she’s like “I know how this [sex] happens.” There was an article in Time about the anniversary of the pill, which argued that abstinence education is partly behind the foster care epidemic.
LT: Someone was just telling me that the number of abortions are way down, and I don’t know if that means less people are getting pregnant or fewer people are getting abortions … That’s why we always said Cate and Baze used a condom, it just broke. I didn’t want to represent them as careless people. I also never meant to represent Cate as anti-choice …
JB: Is that what people think?
LT: With Gilmore Girls and with this show. If you look at things through that lens, it’s easy to say. With Gilmore Girls, the message could be, “Hey! You should get pregnant and have a baby! Because you guys will be best friends!” With Cate, maybe it’s a little different, but close. People put their belief systems onto [the characters], but I always had my own theory about Cate. And actually, kind of like with my mom, she didn’t know she was pregnant until she was about six months pregnant. She was, but they told her she wasn’t … Cate was in denial for a long time and then it was past the first trimester and [an abortion] wasn’t going to happen. But our intention wasn’t to send anti-choice messages.
JB: What’s your experience being a female showrunner?
LT: I read an article that looked at the ratio of men to women, and said it wasn’t that great for women. That’s not my experience. Julie Plec, who does The Vampire Diaries, is one of my best friends; my producing partner’s a woman and she does everything; I’m surrounded by so many empowered women. But it’s much harder. We’re just built differently, for instance: I was having this horrible day [a few years back] and I did this pitch and I don’t [remember] what happened. But as they were talking I could feel myself welling up in this room full of men, one woman, thank God, and I was … really frustrated. And I just started crying! And I was so mad at myself, I was being such a girl. But I wanted to say, I cried, I’m not ashamed of that. That’s what I do, I don’t punch people, I don’t take it out on someone. I just get a little weepy.
It can be hard because that’s not acceptable, and while it’s not everyone’s nature to cry, it’s mine, and obviously if you’re crying at work you’re seen as weak. So then I have to fight my personal nature. It’s not the best example. But I feel like my whole show is that too, in a weird way. There are really strong women on the show and I like it that way. We think differently but we’re not desperate to be right, we really want to collaborate. It’s not about our egos–we just want to make it good.