The best thing I can say about Chasing Life is that it’s a show that is perfectly suited for ABC Family. I doubt it will work for viewers who aren’t familiar with ABC Family’s brand (or are familiar and actively dislike it), but I won’t be surprised if it becomes a small hit among fans of the network and its existing programs. There is nothing terrible about the drama,and there are a few scenes hinting that Chasing Life could be a better and more emotional program, but it never sticks with those, instead insisting on being firmly middling.
Chasing Life has all the staples that you’d expect from ABC Family: a pretty 20-something woman at its center, a non-traditional and multi-generational family under one roof, sloppy emotional heart, unnecessary melodramatic twists, hot guys, badass hot guys, relationship drama, and so on. The show revolves around April (a likable Italia Ricci), a 24-year-old who is just starting to get her life together — her journalism career, her hot new boyfriend and first adult relationship — when she is suddenly diagnosed with cancer. She had no idea she was sick; she faints while donating blood (during an immature attempt at interviewing a celebrity) and her estranged Uncle George (Steven Weber), who just happens to be an oncologist at that same hospital, runs some blood tests and discovers that she has leukemia.
It’s weird — and perhaps crass — to say that a cancer diagnosis as a twist in popular culture seems downright routine right now, but that was in the back of my mind while watching the three episodes sent out to critics. The show premieres tonight, a few days after The Fault in Our Stars opened in theaters and a few days before Lullaby opens. Last year, both Breaking Bad and The Big C aired their final episodes, and this fall, we’ll see the new Fox series Red Band Society. Each of these shows and movies have a built-in timeline of sorts: impending death hangs over the entirety of The Fault in Our Stars, and Walter White raced the clock for five seasons. Chasing Life has no sense of urgency. In some ways, it’s refreshing that April’s cancer isn’t the entirety of the story, but it also means that it gets a bit dull pretty quickly when the show falls back into the lame mechanics of a joyless teen drama.
It’s to the show’s credit that it doesn’t let April’s leukemia take over her life; it merely lingers in the background of every scene and every 20-something problem that she faces. She worries that her new sorta-boyfriend might be a player who is sleeping with other girls; she also worries over whether it’s best to tell him about the cancer before or after they first have sex (“during,” her best friend offers). After drinking too much, she wakes up in his bed with a unique drunk story: “I got wasted last night and I think I told Dominic I have cancer.” But April doesn’t tell anyone about the leukemia except for her best friend, so the show skips all the hugging and tearful scenes, opting instead to focus on the side characters’ individual issues.
What should feel like balance instead creates major tonal issues. I don’t know what to make of Chasing Life. Even the poster is confusing — I suppose it’s an update of the old saying: “When life gives you lemons, pile them into a coffin while you contemplate your cancer diagnosis” — and the show clumsily tries to provide both drama and comedy with poor results. Chasing Life doesn’t give us enough time to learn about April, the lead character, before throwing us into the lives of everyone else around her. The first three episodes are packed with overdone theatrics: her father died in a car crash, the anger between the family and the uncle who is secretly helping April, the mother’s online dating exploits, the best friend’s career quandary, the hierarchy and power struggles in the newsroom, and the younger sister’s trope-y teen rebellion. It collapses under the weight of its heavy plots.
At the end of the pilot comes a big twist that is meant to hook in the viewer, but it’s eye-roll-inducing and unnecessary. The hook — a young woman tries to accept her life-changing diagnosis while remaining headstrong — is already there. Everything additional feels desperate, as if the writers think the story isn’t strong enough to sustain a narrative on its own. This lack of confidence is evident throughout the episodes, and it’s disappointing because Chasing Life is very much a show that could continue to build ABC Family into a great network for teenage girls — we could certainly use one — but it’s not yet strong enough.