posted January 14, 2010 05:05 PM
The CW's Indie Experiment
The 'Gossip Girl' network takes a chance on a gritty series about a foster kid
By AMY CHOZICK
Growing up with an adoptive family in Texas, Liz Tigelaar used to daydream about who her birth parents might be. "I was like, 'I think Nancy Reagan's my birth mom,' " she says. "I should be living in the White House, and I should have $100-a-month allowance."
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Britt Robertson plays a teen in foster care in 'Life Unexpected.'
Ms. Tigelaar tapped into this mix of fantasy and yearning when she sat down to write "Life Unexpected," a quiet drama about a teenage girl in foster care that debuts on the CW on Jan. 18. The new series is a risk for a network that has subsisted recently by providing juicy teen fantasies. "I'm scared" for the new show, says David Stapf, president of CBS Television Studios, which produces "Life Unexpected."
Set in Portland, Ore., the show has an independent-movie look. Characters slosh around in rain boots and barbecue on apartment rooftops, far from the sunny beaches of Beverly Hills in "90210" and the chic streets of Manhattan in "Gossip Girl." Ms. Tigelaar says those shows are "about instant gratification." Her new show, by contrast, is "about longing."
The CW has become a haven for teen-friendly programming since it launched in 2006, the result of combining the splashy UPN network and the homier WB. But in its third year, "Gossip Girl," the show that's come to define the network, has drawn about 2.3 million people, down from 2.4 million in the 2007-2008 season, according to Nielsen.
The decline comes as teenage tastes have shifted away from unattainable glamour to a more realistic and emotional experience, some programmers say. In order to expand and compete with more established broadcasters, the CW must draw a broader range of viewers, they add. "Not everything has to be so heightened and cruel and snarky and ridiculous to get an audience," says Julie Plec, an executive producer on the CW's "The Vampire Diaries."
CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff says she hopes "Life Unexpected" will attract an audience similar to that for "Gilmore Girls," the WB series about a single mom and her teenage daughter that mothers and daughters watched together before the show ended in 2007. "We were looking for a different way to do a family show," Ms. Ostroff says.
Watch a scene from "Life Unexpected," a new show about a teenage girl re-united with her 30-something parents. Video courtesy of CW.
Lux—the cherub-faced protagonist played by Britt Robertson—shares almost equal screen time with her hip but ineffectual birth parents. The show is "a coming-of-age story…[but] the grown-ups are the people that need to come of age," Ms. Tigelaar says. "Lux is the catalyst for them to do that."
Consumer research shows that teens like television series that don't put grown-ups on the sidelines, says Paul Lee, president of ABC Family, the cable channel that's aired reruns of such popular WB series as "Gilmore Girls," "Everwood" and "Smallville," alongside similar emotionally charged original shows. "This is a generation that likes their parents more than their Prada," Mr. Lee says.
In 2006 Ms. Tigelaar created a pilot for a teen drama called "Split Decision" about a teenage girl who sees the punks and the druggies on one side of the high-school cafeteria and, on the other side, the popular kids and the cheerleaders. The series, reminiscent of the 1998 movie "Sliding Doors," would have followed her in both social groups.
Network executives declined to finance the project because it seemed like a tough storytelling device to stretch on for multiple episodes, but Ms. Tigelaar made an impact. "That's where we were indoctrinated into Liz's writing and her way of getting at the heart of what is really in the soul of a teenager," says CBS Television Studios's Mr. Stapf.