Success Unexpected

April 12, 2010 2:43 am0 comments
Wesley Ambrecht

In January of this year, Life Unexpected debuted on The CW to warm reviews. Life was the network’s first real attempt to operate outside of the female programming niche they’ve become synonymous with. It’s a quirky and heartwarming tale in the vein of The WB’s most successful series. Unsurprisingly the show’s creator, Liz Tigelaar, cut her teeth at The WB almost a decade ago. Tigelaar sat down with Sun Staff Writer Wesley Ambrecht about tonight’s season finale, airing at 8 p.m., and the struggles of running a network television show.
The Sun: Now, I am pretty familiar with your history in the business but, for readers who may not be, can you quickly walk us though?
Liz Tigelaar: Well, I went to Ithaca College where I majored in Television and Radio. Ithaca has a program were you can go out west for a semester. Like a semester abroad but in L.A. so, I did that a couple times which led to an internship on Dawson’s Creek. I was lucky enough to turn that into a job just as I was graduating from IC. I started in post production because that’s what they had available; and, eventually I worked my way down to the writers room because I saw how much fun they were having. Writing had always been my goal so I did just about every assistant type job you can do in the writers’ room and then I got a writing partner with whom I began drafting spec scripts and pilots. I ended up getting a job as an assistant on American Dreams. I wrote an episode for them and that episode got me on staff. Dreams was pretty much my first job and from there I just kept working. Sometimes you think just because you got staff on one show finding work will be easy, but it wasn’t so I tried to keep myself involved by writing and taking whatever projects I could. It ended being really helpful for me because I’m really an example of someone who worked their way up the latter.
Sun: Very cool, next let’s flash back to last year for a minute. How nervous were you during upfront season, especially when The CW sold off their Sunday night programming block?
L.T.: Yeah that was definitely a bummer. We were up against a lot of competition. Julie Plec [Executive Producer of Vampire Diaries] is one of my best friends so it was interesting watching us both go through it. My pilot had initially been developed for the season before and she ended up starting development late so, we were both going through the same process but having vastly different experiences. She was on this whirlwind of success while I was waiting and worrying.
It was pretty stressful because I was in an underdog position, but having her really helped. The week before upfronts [where the network pitches to advertisers] everyone is just waiting in New York and going over the schedule. One day we were on the schedule, and the next day we were off. I actually had a party and Brittany Snow, who was suppose to be the star of The CW’s Gossip Girl Spin-Off, came. By then I heard we were dead and they were going forward so, I congratulated her only to find out that it was just rumors. Then, the night before The CW’s Upfront, I got a call at 6 p.m. saying we’d been picked up so I took a red-eye to Madison Square to be there for the event.
Sun: Yeah, CW’s process last year was very odd. Usually the fall schedule will leak out a few days before upfronts. But, last year I was at The CW’s Upfront and most of us who were physically in the room still didn’t know what Dawn [Ostroff] was going to say.
L.T.: Yeah, and that’s why it was so consuming for me as a writer because I knew I’d either be working on Melrose Place for the whole year or I would have my own show.
Sun: That’s interesting, especially because of what’s happened with Melrose, in terms of the ratings not being there and the casting overturn.
L.T.: Yeah, I actually worked on Melrose for a month, as a contingency of Life Unexpected going forward, and that was a great group of people. But, it doesn’t compare to doing a show that you’re passionate about and that you created. 
Sun: Absolutely, when you’ve created something there’s a whole different level of investment. Though, I don’t think being a remake hurt Melrose as much as a poor lead in did. They thought 90210 would fit well with it, since the original had, but tonally they were so different.
L.T.: Yeah. Yeah, actually that’s so true.
Sun: With Life Unexpected, it originally was titled Light Years and then it was changed to Parental Discretion Advised, are you happy where you landed title wise?
L.T.: (Laughs) Yeah I can’t knock Parental Discretion Advised too much because I came up with it, but it was just one of 200 possible names I drafted at the network’s request. That’s part of the drama of upfronts because, at one point, they wanted the name to be an acronym. It wasn’t Dirty Little Girl or Pretty Young Thing but it was something in that vein. I knew we would never be a show like that and it worried me. I loved Light Years, and I think people would have watched a show with that title, but Life Unexpected was my second choice and it sounded more like a drama.
Sun: Unlike Parental Discretion Advised, which sounded like a TGIF show from the 1990s.
L.T.: Yeah, it’s a not a bad title but it didn’t really fit our show. I remember talking to my producer and saying that Parental Discretion Advised didn’t sound like a long running drama.
Sun: Do you think that The CW’s decision to hold Life Unexpected until midseason, instead of launching it in the fall, was beneficial?
L.T: I think it was hugely beneficial for a number of reasons. Financially it was great because we’re the cheapest show on the network but we got a huge press campaign. If you look at The Beautiful Life, which they did launch in the fall, they had like two billboards. All of the press brought us big premiere ratings. I don’t know what our numbers would have been like if we’d launched in the fall. Tracking The CW’s numbers in general is difficult because they have such a specific audience. We’ll always be the show on their network that’s a little bit different but it seems like they’re branching out. Personally, it was great for me because I was able to bank scripts before we began shooting. I wrote the second episode before I even hired a writing staff.
Sun: Airing behind One Tree Hill, Life was getting pretty good ratings for The CW; it was maintaining most of its lead in. What I want to know, is how much attention the network gives to overnight ratings, because they’ve stressed that most of their audience comes from streaming. And, they recently the addition of more commercials to shows viewed online, so that they can generate more ad revenue.
L.T.: Oh, interesting … I think they have to have a different way of tallying viewers because they do have a lot of viewers who watch online. That said, of course live ratings matter; especially, since our show doesn’t have a big jump once DVR numbers are factored in. That’s why airing encore presentations on Wednesday night was so great, because it doubled our total audience for the week. Monday nights are really tough, not to say that Wednesday isn’t …
Sun: I’ll say it. Wednesday is the weakest night for primetime television. Especially at 8 p.m., which is why FOX tried launching Human Target there.
L.T.: Right, that’s why I think we could really do well in that time slot.
Sun: Since moving to Monday’s at 8 p.m., the show has seen an uptick in ratings, which was surprising to analysts. The move put you against Chuck and House, among other things. The ratings jump has to be encouraging, right?
 L.T.: Our ratings fluctuate, we’ll be up and then down. Last week, for example, we hit a series low because of the NCAA Final conflicting with us on the West Coast. That was unfortunate because last Monday’s episode was one of my favorites. Even though we only drop by like a tenth of a point, which doesn’t seem like that much, I’m sure it matters to the people deciding our fate. Whether we go up or down, I think people are finding the show. If you look at Gilmore Girls, that show didn’t really break out in the ratings until its third season. It takes a certain level of commitment to get and keep an audience, and we’re trying to do that. I think if we’d had 22 episodes instead of 13 then the ratings might be a little higher, but I’m happy with what we’ve done.   
Sun: Even with last week’s ratings drop, I’m still pretty sure that Life Unexpected is one the Top 5 most watched shows on the network. So, was it frustrating that it wasn’t included in The CW’s massive pick-up list for next season?
L.T.: I never expected to be swept up in that pick-up because we had only aired a couple episodes. It is frustrating though; because, I feel like we’re making really good TV for that network. We’re telling a compelling story about family and I would have loved that pat on the head. We’ve never been a show that’s had it easy; our motto is “Not dead yet.” When the cast ask me when I expect to hear about a pickup, I tell them the night before this year’s upfront. That’s our show, we struggle but in the end we pull through. We’re not big and flashy; we’re little and heartfelt. Planning for next season would certainly be easier if we had the pickup. We could make casting decisions and break stories early instead of scrambling later. But, I think it’ll all work out.
Sun: I’m sure you probably saw it last week, but Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Ausiello reported that CW was leaning towards a 13 episode order for both Life Unexpected and One Tree Hill where they would share the Monday 8 p.m. timeslot. I’m hearing similar things so I was wondering what your thoughts on that scenario are.
L.T.: I feel fine about that scenario. Obviously everyone wants a full season. I’m sure the creators of [ABC’s] Happy Town weren’t jumping up and down yelling “we got six [episodes].” You always aspire for more, and getting a full 22 episode season is validating. Yet, we just did a very strong 13 episode season, so I feel confident in my ability to craft a season of that length. Knowing that we might get 13 for next year, I’ve begun to break stories into two chucks: the 13 and the back nine or Season Two and Season Three. Also, the nice thing about getting 13 is that they can always order more later on.
Sun: I like the idea of it; but the fanboy in me is hoping that they pair you with Amy Palladino’s new show The Wyoming Project. I think tonally, that’s the only show on their slate that fits well with you guys.
L.T.: Yeah, that would be great! But, things can change when they see their pilots cut together. They might see her show and decide to brand a night like they’ve done with Thrusday’s supernatural theme. Even though I like Gossip Girl, I don’t think we share the same audience. Our demographic is probably closer to 90210, because they have parents and a family element. I think pairing us with a true family show like Amy’s could be the way to build a night.
Sun: Which night do you think it would be though? I mean the network only has so many timeslots. It looks as though Supernatural is moving to Friday’s behind Smallville, which opens up a slot behind Vampire Diaries but not a whole night.
L.T.: (Laughs) They could always put us behind Vampire Diaries. I always say to Julie [Plec] that I think, thematically, our shows are similar. We both have family elements and love triangles. Julie and of course Kevin [Williamson] taught me so much, so the way I break stories is very similar to the way they do. I kind of wish that we could be paired together.
Sun: Shifting more towards the creative element, last week you told the L.A. Times that Episode 12 saw a tonal shift for the show. I didn’t really see that shift, so I was wondering if you could elaborate.
L.T.: It wasn’t a huge tonal shift. But by episode 12 our three main characters are a family. Lux has made Cate and Baze prove themselves as parents. Now, there is less tension between the characters; and, in Episode 12, you see that. Lux may have gone on the road trip under false pretenses but, in doing so, she realizes that Cate and Baze really love her. So, in Season Two we can tell stories about this family against the world, instead of these characters against one another.
Sun: Interesting. For me, the shift that you’re discussing really started with the introduction of Alexandra Breckenridge. I think the Abby character created a whole new dynamic, and it’s one that I really enjoyed watching. In fact, last week, when she didn’t accompany Cate on the road trip I was really disappointed. Because of which, I was wondering, do you see Alexandra being upgraded to main character status if you return?
L.T.: That’s one way that our budget has made this season difficult. There are very serious constraints that I have to deal with in terms of guest cast. Compared to Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl and even 90210 we have a much smaller main cast, but we can only bring so many guest stars into the mix. So, with Episode 12, we needed to have Cate’s dad; we needed to have Cate’s mom; and, we needed the Bug character for our backup story. I’d love to have Alexandra upgraded, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about flying her up from Los Angles [Life Unexpected films in Vancouver]. She was suppose to be in the finale but then she got sick and couldn’t make her flight. So, I had to quickly write her out, which was total bummer. We have five series regulars, which means I have to deal with these same problems with all our guest actors. Having a larger cast means that you can tell bigger stories and I’d like to be able to do that.
Sun: So what about Reggie Austin, who plays Jamie? Most of his episodes were front-ended and he isn’t considered main, whereas Austin Basis is credited as main but he had a much smaller role at the beginning of the season before gaining more screen time down the stretch. Was that intentional? Was it done to accommodate Reggie’s schedule?
L.T.: Again, I think it’s the same thing. I would have loved to make Reggie a main character right from the start, but we couldn’t afford it. Then, as the season progressed, we wanted to tell stories with Bug and Abby. So, now all of the sudden they’re both in an episode and we can’t have Reggie. We did one episode with a big family dinner and that had six guest stars, so the next one we could really only afford two. We wanted Reggie in as many episodes as we could; so, we had him in a lot at the beginning but then we couldn’t afford to have him in as much at the end.
People don’t understand all of the detail that goes into running a show. Part of the reason we did a storm episode, but kept most of it inside on sets, was so that we could afford to do the road trip episode. People can be outraged at the State Farm product placement in that road trip episode, but because of State Farm we were able to shoot for an extra day. You make allowances to afford things. I had initially planned an arc for Reggie, but we couldn’t do it. Similarly, Erin [Karpluk] does another show called Being Erica, so if we start production for a 2nd season in August then she won’t be available until the back half of the season. But, if we start in July she won’t be available at all.
If you look at the storm episode, the reason we did flashbacks was due to Ksenia Solo’s unavailability. She had booked Black Swan and couldn’t fly out, but we wanted to tell a Tasha story. So, we did a little Tasha story.  Even Austin Basis, who is a main character, had a limited episode order. So I couldn’t use him for three episodes. It’s like a big puzzle trying to fit everyone in.
I always did shitty on the math part of standardized tests. But, if the question is like “a train is going this way and another is going that way and someone has to get the beer” that’s where I get good.
Sun: I have two reader questions I wanted to ask you. The first is in regards to the Jones character; will there be some sense of closure to that story in the finale, given that Austin Butler has booked the Betwixt pilot?
L.T.: I had a feeling that The CW was going to book him for another pilot because of a comment that The CW’s casting director made at the winter press tour. This is an example of me wanting to tell Jones’ stories but, now, Jones is off playing a fairy on someone else’s pilot. Had I known for sure that we were going to lose him, I would have given that character more closure. Even though, I was by no means done with him. To answer your question, he isn’t in the finale because the teenage love triangle takes a backseat to more pressing issues.
When Bug called Lux damaged goods earlier in the season he was sort of right. I mean we can see that she’s making the decision to be in this questionable relationship, instead getting together with Jones. It serves as a nice parallel to Cate who has this perfect guy in Ryan, but still finds herself wanting Baze. There was a lot more I wanted to explore with that; and, they’ve told me that should Betwixt go to series it will also shoot in Canada and The CW will make Austin available to me. I don’t know if I believe that; it just seems too easy. But, we’ll have to see what happens.
Sun: The second question was in regards to Britt Irvin. A reader wanted to know if you ever thought about bringing her back after the pilot.
L.T.: Well, she was in Episode Two. With that situation, I always loved the idea of Britt’s character but I thought that having both Baze and Cate in series relationships would put them in too similar a position. We toyed with the idea of bringing her back towards the middle of the season, but we just weren’t sure it would work. That said, Britt’s great and it’s always a possibility that she’ll reappear down the line.
Sun: Ok, finally, would you go ahead and preview the finale for us. What big decision does Cate have to make? And, what will the ramifications of that decision are, assuming you’re back next season? The finale is a wedding episode and, assuming Kate doesn’t go through with it, I’m not sure how Kerr Smith fits in next season. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
L.T.: (Laughs) Oh man, I’d love to talk to you after the finale has aired because we were always building towards one thing but at the last minute we switched it around.
Sun: That can be arranged.
L.T.: (Laughs) If this ends up becoming the series finale, it would fit in a lot of ways. But, it was built as a season finale. Like you said, it’s a wedding episode, and all of the characters have different feelings about the wedding. The finale is like a snowball rolling down a mountain, continuously gaining momentum. There are a lot of people admitting things for the first time and coming to terms with others. More than any other episode this season, the finale is like the pilot. There aren’t three separate storylines but rather one big one, which was intentional. We even used a lot of the music from the pilot so that we could reinforce the finale as a bookend. It’s really cool, trust me!
Sun: Now you’ve got me all excited. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to talk to you again after the finale airs on Monday night but, if I don’t, thank you so much for taking the time to talk.
L.T.: Yeah, I’ll give you the real scoop after it airs. But, seriously, it was my pleasure.