‘Chasing Life’ under a cloud
"Chasing Life" is quite the concoction. The 24-year-old heroine's dire cancer diagnosis — she finds out she has leukemia in the middle of the premiere — is but a dash of pepper atop this stuffed casserole. April Carver is also dealing with a new romance, a challenging job as an intern at a Boston newspaper, a ruthlessly competitive professional frenemy, a troubled younger sister who hangs with hooligans in Charlestown, an estranged uncle, and a major twist at the end of the first episode (unspoiled here) that has absolutely nothing to do with leukemia.
But the ABC Family show, which premieres on Tuesday night at 9, holds it all together nicely enough. Look, "Chasing Life," like most ABC Family dramas, isn't trying to go deep. It would be great to see the network come up with something as honest as, say, "My So-Called Life," or as original and amusingly metaphorical as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," or as thought-provoking as a movie like "River's Edge." But in the meantime, a mostly happy dramedy like "Chasing Life" will do, marrying strong female roles with CW-style 20-something melodrama that's as mindlessly angsty as the Bon Iver on the soundtrack.
I'm assuming that, as the season moves forward, the script will focus a little more intensely and realistically on April's leukemia. But this will never be "The Fault in Our Stars," or "Dying Young," or "Love Story." In a way, the show initially avoids the cancer theme because April is unable to process her new diagnosis, which she gets almost accidentally from her uncle, an oncologist played by Steven Weber. She keeps it a secret, and lets it find footing in her unconscious. That gives us a chance to learn more about the rest of her story — job, love, friendships. We get to see the pressure she is under to be the anchor of her family since her father died years ago. Her therapist mother and her younger sister both lean on her, making it harder for her to admit impediments.
The tone is upbeat, as the ambitious April works to get the gruff editor of the fictional Boston Post to give her a byline, even going to unethical lengths to land an interview with a sports star. (Some of the scenes of the Post newsroom, by the way, were filmed at the Globe.) She has a crush on dimpled arts reporter Dominic (Richard Brancatisano), who — hurrah — also has a crush on her. We can only wonder how her leukemia will affect these new beginnings.
As April, Italia Ricci is appealing — low-key, energetic, resilient, and able to emphasize April's feminism without turning it into a kind of shtick. Her scenes with Brancatisano work because both of them are equally flirty, equally vulnerable, and equally unwilling to play the kinds of romantic back-and-forth games that keep too many bad dramedies in business. Rather than chasing boys who don't want her, or who want her but won't admit it, or who want her too much, April is — yup — chasing life.