Cancer is having a definite pop-cultural moment, given The Fault in Our Stars‘ recent trouncing of Tom Cruise at the box office. Lucky timing for Chasing Life, the new ABC Family drama that premiered last Tuesday. It centers on 24-year-old April Carver (Italia Ricci), a budding Boston journalist who’s stunned when she gets a leukemia diagnosis.
I like that this show exists, even if it does bear the overly polished sheen endemic to this network. It’s a positive step forward for a show to feature a character this young facing a terminal illness. Laura Linney was predictably amazing in The Big C, but her character was of an age that we more or less expect to be dealing with stuff like this. We recently saw Miss Rosa on Orange is the New Black going for her chemo treatment, but again, she’s on the older side. We occasionally see the tragic depiction of really young children with cancer, but young adults, not so much.
Generally, it seems the only puking TV execs want to see from a gorgeous twentysomething brunette is the kind that’s the result of binge drinking.
But this show speaks — or could speak — to a real-life invisibility. Public ignorance of the in-between demo inspired the creation of Stupid Cancer, a nonprofit that has diagnosed the 72,000 young adults (age 15-39) with cancer as a “largely unknown group” that falls into a treatment — and awareness — gap between those two other demographics.
Chasing Life, then, has the potential to carve out a new niche by shining a light on a subject we often don’t want to think about: the fact that sometimes the young and beautiful and seemingly immortal get seriously sick, too.
So what does this show get right? Well, for starters, it’s a female-centric show, developed by two women, which in itself is cause for celebration. And the cast is at least somewhat diverse, with a couple of non-white supporting characters (most notably, Aisha Dee as April’s feisty best friend Beth).
What’s more, April name-checks feminism, which already puts the show in a fairly rarified category.
Joni Lefkowitz and Susannah Fogel (the pair behind the forthcoming female-friendship indie Life Partners, starring Leighton Meester and Gillian Jacobs) have adapted the Mexican drama Terminales for American audiences, creating a capable, independent main character who’s going after the journalism career she wants. In the pilot, she defies an editor’s orders and writes up her big-score interview herself.
It also depicts an all-female family unit. After the death of her father, April, her sister (Haley Ramm), mother (Mary Page Keller), and grandmother (Rebecca Schull) process how to move forward with their lives a year or so after the funeral.
But almost immediately, the show slides into a wacky situational setup, in which April sneaks into a blood drive in order to interview a baseball star, faints, ends up in the hospital with the star flirting with her, and scores the interview.
Furthermore, her diagnosis — discovered by her estranged uncle (Steven Weber), who just happens to be a pediatric oncologist at the same hospital, and just happens to step in to do her blood work himself — immediately becomes the stuff of soap opera, as April decides to keep it a secret from her family because “they can’t handle it right now.”
This is the kind of implausible baloney with which the straight-shooting Hazel Grace from The Fault in Our Stars would have no patience, particularly the show’s dip into Three’s Company territory when April’s office love interest, Dominic, overhears her whispered conversation with her uncle and assumes he’s her secret old-guy boyfriend.
Later, April rethinks her decision to tell Dominic about her illness after he tells her he likes that “there’s no drama” about her. How is this more interesting than exploring the thorny territory of explaining cancer to your loved ones?
The show’s second episode gives me hope. With April’s disclosure to Beth that she’s got leukemia, the balloon of implausible secrecy is punctured, leaving room for more emotive, believable responses (“You can’t die!” Beth blurts out upon hearing the news), and fun with dark humor: “You have no self control,” April tells Beth. “Well, you have no white blood cells,” Beth retorts. Zing!
The main point I take issue with is April’s stance: “I just don’t want everything to be all about me having cancer.” As a character statement, this makes sense. As a show’s mission, I’m not so sure. I’ve already seen plenty of other show plotlines about aspiring journalists; fathers with secret lives; the push and pull between romance and career; wayward little sisters and newly dating single mothers. You know what I haven’t seen? A show that’s all about a young woman having cancer.
So the jury’s still out, but I’ll keep watching, hoping Fogel and Lefkowitz will guide this one into more substantive territory, and that the constraints of the network won’t keep it from getting too dark.
Just for example, that mane of ABC Family-compatible hair — will they dare to let her lose it? And if she does, will the actress dare to shave her head? Fingers crossed, because Monica Potter’s bald cap, on the otherwise affecting breast-cancer storyline on ABC’s Parenthood, made her look like an alien.
If Chasing Life could embrace the realities of chemotherapy and their actual effect on a young woman’s physical appearance, it might start to define itself as the most daring show ABC Family has ever put forth. If the network looks at what happened when Netflix took a chance on the parade of imperfect women called OITNB, I think they’ll conclude it’s a risk well worth taking.